Monday, September 12, 2011

I've been somewhat following the U.S. Department of Fish & Wildlife Services search warrant executed on Gibson Guitar in Nashville and Memphis. Here is the search warrant affidavit that led a judge to sign the search warrant for Gibson.

In that affidavit, it is alleged that: India prohibits export of wood from India. Aff., para. 17; prohibited Indian ebony was imported and allegedly received by a company called Luthier Mercantile International. Aff. para. 18. While the shipment was marked for transport to Nashville, the final consignee was not identified in the paperwork. Para. 20. Luthier Mercantile's representative advised that the shipment was intended for Gibson Guitar in Nashville, id., even though customs forms indicated the final consignee to be Luthier Mercantile in Canada, contradicting the other declarations and paperwork indicating the materials were intended for Nashville. Para 21. The Indian export declaration falsely classified the shipment as being allowed parts (finished parts of musical instruments). Eleven imports in the past year have been noted to be of the prohibited type of wood. Para. 28.

The implication here is obvious: that Gibson, in order to get away with obtaining prohibited materials, set up a series of "straw men" to receive the prohibited materials. If true, that suggests Gibson knew full well what it was doing was in violation of law.

I have tried to distill the legalese in the affidavit for brevity's sake. My judgment is that the affidavit shows probable cause sufficient to issue the search warrant.

Gibson's CEO denies wrongdoing, but doesn't seem to address the implicit charge that Gibson is importing prohibited wood. He is upset that his business is being disrupted. He is mad that the Justice Department has taken the position that sending out any guitars with questionable materials would be obstruction of justice. He said the wood materials seized Wednesday are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, a third-party organization that promotes responsible forest management. He does not address the implication in the search warrant affidavit, though -- that the importation itself violates Indian and U.S. law. He does trumpet the fact that he employs U.S. workers, and implies the dispute has to do with being compelled to use Indian-made finished parts.

Now, the conservative blogosphere immediately took the position that this search is a political vendetta by a Democratic administration against a CEO who is a known Republican. Aside from those bare circumstances, I see no evidence to support these muckraking allegations.

Gibson's CEO has allegedly said that "We have letters from a very high-level government agency in India that says that this product was allowable export," he notes. "And in fact, we have been buying the same product for well over 17 years, regularly." he also says that "Wood that we are buying is being bought by other companies in the industry, and they have not had any kind of action -- not so much as a letter or a postcard...." If there is evidence that other guitar manufacturers are importing wood in violation of law, then they ought to be subject to the same treatment. On the other hand, if the importation was above-board, why all the subterfuge about what was included in the shipment and who the final consignee was?

Frankly, I think it is inconceiveable that the Obama Administration is engaging in this action as some sort of low-level political chicanery, as suggested by the Administration's political/philosophical opponents. Given bureaucratic realities and the appearance of this action as a Fish & Wildlife operation, I would be surprised if the White House even had advance notice of the search warrant.

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