Owners of musical instruments made with illegally imported wood don't face prosecution, two federal agencies say in a letter that addresses fears stirred up after a major Tennessee guitar-maker was raided.
"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," the U.S. Justice Department and the Interior Department wrote to U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn.
Blackburn and other congressional Republicans have been pressing the federal agencies to meet with them about Aug. 24 raids on Gibson Guitar Corp. factories in Memphis and Nashville where agents seized pallets of wood, guitars and computer hard drives. Gibson chief executive Henry Juszkiewicz has publicly blasted the raids as an example of the federal government risking U.S. jobs with over-zealous regulation.
After the raid, Juszkiewicz attended a speech by President Barack Obama as a guest of Blackburn and House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
The letter from Assistant Attorney General Ronald Weich and Christopher J. Mansour, director of legislative affairs at Interior, said those who "unknowingly possess" an instrument made from illegally imported materials don't have a criminal problem.
"I am glad to see administration officials stating on the record that they won't treat unsuspecting musicians as criminals," Blackburn said in a statement.
But Blackburn added that she doesn't understand why the same "unknowing" standard isn't applied to instrument makers like Gibson.
An affidavit supporting the search warrant for the recent raids alleged that shipments of imported Indian ebony and rosewood were given false labels to circumvent import restrictions. Juszkiewicz has denied wrongdoing and complained that the federal government has implicated Gibson, which also manufacturer Baldwin pianos, without filing charges.
A meeting between Juszkiewicz and federal prosecutors scheduled for Wednesday was delayed, and the company also canceled a press conference the same day that was to announce a new mahogany deal with Fiji.
The letter to Blackburn said the federal agencies can't provide specifics of an ongoing investigation to Congress.
"I will continue to hold the Obama Administration's feet to the fire until we receive more adequate answers," Blackburn said.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee was the chief Republican co-sponsor of the 2008 measure to add illegally harvested wood to the existing Lacey Act covering fish, wildlife and plants.
"This bill rewards U.S. producers _ like those in the Southeast where we have large paper companies _ for harvesting the right way," Alexander said at the time.
Alexander has cited Senate ethics rules in declining to comment on the Gibson case, but said he would consider changes to the statute.
"I'm reviewing the Lacey Act to see if it requires changes or improvement so that Gibson and other musical-instrument companies can get the wood they need to make their instruments while at the same time preventing illegal logging," he said in statement Wednesday.
Gibson had been the subject of a similar raid in 2009 over ebony imported from Madagascar through a German firm called Theodor Nagel GmbH, and has been fighting that seizure in federal court. Federal authorities say in court filings that the wood was exported illegally from Madagascar. Gibson and Nagel dispute that.
The company's fierce condemnation of the raids led to a conference call Tuesday by others in the industry who defended the Lacey Act.
"If you've been under investigation for bringing in illegal ebony from Madagascar from a German importer called Nagel who was clearly doing illegal wood, why would you keep buying from that same importer?" said Jameson French, CEO of Kingston, N.H.-based Northland Forest Products.
French, who also serves on the board of The Hardwood Federation, said 2008 changes to the Lacey Act to include wood products have protected the American lumber industry from unfair competition. He said allegations that the import restrictions hurt American jobs are false.
"Perhaps they didn't do the research before they jumped on the bandwagon," he said. "Because I can assure you that the large number of 13,000 small family companies that are represented by the Hardwood Federation have had positive benefits from the Lacey Act amendment."
Charlie Redden, supply chain manager for El Cajon, Calif.-based Taylor Guitars, said his business hasn't seen much disturbance.
"We travel to these places and meet with the woodcutters and we ask some of those tough questions about where they're getting their wood from, and physically see where the wood comes from," Redden said.
Mark Barford, executive director of the Memphis-based National Hardwood Lumber Association, said the limits on illegal wood sales in the United States and in other countries help maintain both the domestic and export markets.
"There are many hundreds and hundreds of small operators, even in the state of Tennessee, that count on fair trade and honest trade in order to stay competitive on the world market," Barford said.
Andrea Johnson, Forest Campaign Director for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a research and advocacy group, said although the industry uses the rarest and most endangered species _ including wood, ivory and mother of pearl _ fears about instruments being seized are misguided.
"Let's be very clear here: No one is coming to take your Les Paul guitar," Johnson said.