Gibson Guitar’s chief executive , Henry Juszkiewicz, is striking back with efforts to amend the law, to provide more certainty not just for instrument manufacturers and dealers but also for musicians, who theoretically could run afoul of it by possessing instruments containing illegal wood.
That’s put him in the spotlight of the conservative campaign against what some view as federal regulatory overreach, and he’s gained an eclectic band of allies — including tea party adherents and the Democrat who represents the home of country music.
“I’m being pulled into this involvement through the Justice Department action,” Juszkiewicz said. “I’m sort of in the frying pan and my thought process is, that’s wrong. . . . Let me look at what is the problem, and let me fix it.”
Interior Department spokesman Adam Fetcher declined to comment on the federal inquiry into Gibson’s actions. No criminal charges have been filed in what federal officials call an ongoing probe; Gibson is fighting for return of the confiscated material.
Juszkiewicz’s campaign — which includes hiring the lobbying firm Crowell & Moring on retainer for more than $10,000 a month — has begun to yield results. In mid-October, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) introduced a bill that would protect anyone who unknowingly possesses wood that violates the Lacey Act from prosecution; exempt any wood products owned before May 22, 2008, from the law; and compel the federal government to publish an Internet database of illegal wood sources to inform the public.
“The Gibson incident highlighted the urgency of looking at Lacey,” Cooper said. “I do want to protect guitar players and musicians who have old instruments. That’s the main focus of the law.”
Country music star Vince Gill and other musicians, such as Steve Bryant, who wrote the song “Keep Your Hands Off Our Wood,” argue that they could be held liable for old instruments without proper documentation.
Institute for Liberty President Andrew Langer, a conservative activist, said the Lacey Act is getting much more attention now than when he and others decried it after David McNab was convicted in 2001 of illegally importing lobster tails from Honduras. “Given that it’s Gibson Guitar, it’s certainly much, much higher profile than a seafood importer in the Gulf.”
Senior officials from the Justice Department and Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service have repeatedly rejected the idea that musicians could run afoul of the Lacey Act. In a Sept. 19 letter to Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), who co-sponsored Cooper’s bill, officials from the two agencies wrote, “people who unknowingly possess a musical instrument or other object that contains wood that was illegally taken, transported or sold in violation of the law and who, in the exercise of due care, would not have known it was illegal, do not have criminal exposure. The Federal Government focuses its enforcement efforts on those who are removing protected species from the wild and making a profit by trafficking in them.”