Gibson is playing a Tea Party tune

Gibson, the maker of the iconic Les Paul electric guitar, has become an unlikely political symbol in the fight over regulations and the reach of government since the company protested federal raids on its factories last month.

And its CEO, Henry Juszkiewicz, has become a reluctant warrior against excessive government regulations.

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Juszkiewicz has become a hero to Tea Party groups for fighting back against the investigation. He has become a public face of the debate, and sat in House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) box during President Obama’s address to Congress earlier this month.

In his jobs speech last week, Boehner pointed to the Gibson raids as an example of how government regulations can destroy jobs.

In an interview with The Hill, Juszkiewicz said his goal is to pressure the Justice Department to settle the case and to get Congress to change laws he thinks are unfair.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents raided Gibson Guitar factories in Tennessee at the end of August and seized raw materials, electronic files and guitars as part of an investigation into whether the guitar-maker had imported illegal wood in violation of the Lacey Act. 

The Lacey Act makes it a crime to import plants or wildlife into the U.S. if those goods were obtained in a way that breaks the laws of another country. In Gibson’s case, U.S. Fish and Wildlife said the company is suspected of obtaining illegally logged ebony and rosewood from Madagascar and unfinished wood from India. Gibson has denied the charges.

And conservatives have rallied to the company’s defense, arguing it is ridiculous that government agents would raid American factories to enforce foreign laws.

On Twitter, Gibson, whose guitars have been used by countless famous musicians, uses the hashtag “ThisWillNotStand” for posts about the raids, and Juszkiewicz has appeared on conservative radio shows to discuss what he describes as government bullying and harassment.

The public-relations campaign has captured the attention of lawmakers. Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have demanded more information about the raids from administration officials, and Juszkiewicz is scheduled to meet with Justice Department officials on Wednesday.

Juszkiewicz said he never meant to start a partisan fight, but he is happy people are reacting to the campaign.

His problem with the law is not that it requires enforcement of foreign laws. In fact, he says he supports the goal of the Lacey Act to combat illegal logging.

He says his problem is that the law is ambiguous. It requires companies to use “due care” not to import wood that was harvested illegally but does not explicitly define what that requirement entails.

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“You shouldn’t pass a law unless you’re very specific about how to abide by it,” he said. 

Juszkiewicz said the law as it is currently written is a “blank check” for prosecutors.

He has been CEO of Gibson Guitars since 1986, when he and two business partners acquired the company. According to his official company bio, he has a passion for music and “worked his way through school playing guitar — a Gibson, of course — in various rock bands playing for parties and weddings.”

He and his wife have made a few political contributions — $4,600 to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s (R) presidential campaign in 2007 and $2,000 to Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) earlier this year. Cooper represents Nashville, which is where Gibson Guitar is based. Cooper also plans to introduce legislation that would grandfather musical instruments made before 2008 into the Lacey Act.

Gibson’s campaign has sparked a backlash from environmental groups and wood product companies that want to defend the Lacey Act, which was changed to protect plants in 2008.

Environmental groups support the Lacey Act because, they say, it protects endangered forests and the species that depend on them. 

The wood industry, which usually finds itself on the opposite side of issues from environmental groups, also supports the law, saying it is unfair to force the industry to compete with illegal loggers.

Jameson French, CEO of Northland Forest Products and the former chairman of the Hardwood Federation, a trade association, said illegal loggers evade environmental and trade laws and sell their products more cheaply than law-abiding companies can.

French said he is “flabbergasted by the misinformation that’s been put out there” by Gibson. In particular, he said that rather than costing jobs, the Lacey Act has “saved a lot of American jobs” by protecting American wood companies from illegal competition.

The groups have been meeting with lawmakers to combat Gibson’s public-relations campaign. They held a briefing for congressional staffers last week and will host a teleconference on Tuesday to “reveal the truth about the Lacey Act and the impact of illegal logging on American jobs and endangered forests.”

Juszkiewicz also argues the raids violated his company’s due-process rights. Agents seized wood and guitars, costing his business money, but the government has not yet proven that Gibson broke any laws.

He says there should be more checks to prevent government abuses, and the company should be able to appeal to a third party to recover its goods.

The Fish and Wildlife Service obtained a search warrant from a judge before conducting the raids. The warrant was based on a sworn statement from a federal investigator, and the goods were seized as evidence for the government’s investigation.

But Juszkiewicz suggested the statement might not have been entirely accurate. “There have to be consequences when federal officials do something bad,” he added.

Juszkiewicz said the initial success of his campaign has inspired him to fight for broad changes to the law.

He said he has been meeting with lawyers about how to craft legislation that would allow companies to recover goods seized in raids.

“We have the public’s attention, and we want to take advantage of that,” he said.


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