September 30, 2011 / 10:25 PM / 8 years ago

Gibson Guitars wood imports case raises concerns

NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - The chief executive of Gibson Guitars wants to talk to prosecutors about U.S. allegations the legendary guitar maker imported rare ebony and rosewood illegally, the company said on Friday.

The 'Gibson Firebird X' guitar made by U.S. guitar maker Gibson is seen during a press conference in New York, October 28, 2010. TREUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The highly publicized case is on hold under a judge’s order, with no charges filed yet, and a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Nashville would not comment on when authorities might meet with Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz.

Gibson’s case has been held up by some Republicans in Tennessee and in Washington, D.C., as an example of what they argue is over-regulation threatening U.S. jobs.

But the U.S. logging industry and environmental groups have shot back that the law governing wood imports is justified, and tight enforcement has saved U.S. jobs.

Some conservatives groups, including members of the Tea Party in Tennessee, planned a rally October 8 to express support for Gibson.

A planned meeting earlier this month did not take place, and neither side has explained why not.

Despite assurances by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that authorities were only after importers of bulk ebony and rosewood, Nashville’s music scene was rife with rumors that musicians’ instruments could be seized.

Acclaimed bass guitar player Dave Pomeroy, who is president of the Nashville musicians union, said members remained unclear as to whether it was safe to travel with their instruments. Many contain ebony and rosewood like that seized in raids on Gibson’s Tennessee facilities last month and in 2009.

“All musicians want to do is do what every other business person does and that is take their tools to work with them,” Pomeroy said on Friday.

In court documents, the Wildlife Service said Gibson is suspected of obtaining illegally logged ebony and rosewood from Madagascar and unfinished wood from India that violated 2008 amendments to the century-old Lacey Act, which prohibits trade in endangered animals and plants.

Some American musicians have left their instruments at home while on tour so as not to risk the possibility of having them confiscated by U.S. Customs agents. Some rent instruments while on the road.

The Justice Department and the Wildlife Service tried to quell those fears, responding with a letter to a congressional committee and in a statement on the Service’s website.

In a September 22 posting, the agency said enforcement targets are those who “knowingly” import illegal products in bulk that violate laws in exporting countries.

“To be clear: individual consumers and musicians are not the focus of any U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement investigations pertaining to the Lacey Act, and have no need for concern about confiscation of their instruments by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Pomeroy said musicians were erring on the side of caution.

“While the U.S. government has made it clear that musicians are currently not being targeted ... it only takes one overzealous person to create a problem,” he said.

The owner of a 1967 Gibson bass, Pomeroy said he had heard rumors that instruments have been seized. Many musicians play instruments that are older than they are, and do not know if they contain illegally obtained wood, he added.

Editing by Andrew Stern and Greg McCune

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