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September 01, 2011

Law & Order: USFWSSA

Of all the federal law enforcement agencies, there is one you never want to cross.  Its agents are legendary, their ruthlessness unquestioned, and no, they don’t have a sense of humor.

They are, the Department of the Interior’s:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agents.

US Fish and Wildlife Service

It was only a week ago that we chronicled the adventures of one off-duty agent of the USFWS who single-handedly confronted a women and her young daughter who were trying to aid a baby woodpecker.  Was it dangerous? We’re talking about a little girl and a baby woodpecker, what do you think? Was the agent armed?  Sure she was armed. 

With conviction.

And so it was only days ago that the USFWS was on the job again, only this time they were going up against a foe far more dangerous than a young girl and a baby woodpecker. They were facing:

A company that makes guitars.

Gibson Guitar is an organization notorious the world over for using wood in the manufacture of musical instruments. This highly suspect practice potentially places the company in violation of The Lacey Act, a law that makes it illegal for United States companies to import animal and plant products in a manner that would violate laws that do not exist in the United States. Rather, they must comply with the laws of the country the materials are being purchased from. (Think of it as outsourcing our criminal code. It’s just a sad fact of life that foreigners are willing to write the laws Americans won’t.)

How is a company supposed to know if it is violating a foreign law and thus open to possible prosecution in the United States? The USFWS provides a handy guideline:

“It is the responsibility of the importer to be aware of any foreign laws that may pertain to their merchandise prior to its importation into the United States. Currently, the U.S. Government has no plans to create such a database.”

It’s like a secret mystery box law.  Imagine the hours of fun your lawyers are going to have!

In importing Indian rosewood, a common component of its guitars, Gibson is specifically alleged to have come into conflict with amendments to the Lacey Act that had been passed in 2008 that “are intended to protect forests worldwide from deforestation and illegal wood products from entering the United States.”

Clearly, this is important, and Gibson Guitar should be ashamed for trafficking in illegal wood products that result in deforestation of protected forests.  Or at least, they should be had they actually been accused of contributing to the deforestation of protected forests. They weren’t.  Instead, they were jeopardizing jobs:

“The affidavit maintains that unfinished fingerboard blanks that are more than a centimeter thick cannot be exported under Indian law; only finished pieces of veneer, about half as thick can be exported. The intent of the law is to protect woodworking jobs in India.”

Gibson is just another example of a greedy American company insourcing work to Americans. (The President said that he was going to pivot to jobs. He didn’t say where those jobs would be, now did he?)

And while it is obviously a serious violation of Indian law to import a fingerboard that is more than a half a centimeter thick, it is equally important to consider that that is not Indian law.

“But Mr. Juszkiewicz disputes this interpretation of the Indian statutes and the international tariff code. Gibson has been importing fingerboards from India for more than 17 years, he said, without any objections from the Indian government. He added that as recently as July the company’s agents in India received a ruling from Indian trade officials stating that the fingerboards could be exported.”

Is it really all that hard to ask Gibson Guitar to comply with a foreign law as interpreted by the United States before the United States says what their interpretation of the foreign law is?

Is importing wood that is a half a centimeter thicker than it should be serious enough to warrant an armed raid of a factory, the seizure of inventory, and the shutting down of production at a factory? Maybe not, but you should know that Gibson Guitar also stands accused of engaging in a series of appalling acts of mislabeling:

Fraudulent Labeling 1

In case you were wondering whether you’re paying Officer Clark to sit out in front of a warehouse to see if some wood was delivered, yes, yes you are.

The fact that the final destination had been listed as a company that supplies wood for builders of guitars rather than Gibson itself is clearly a sign of… something nefarious, we know that.

Besides, this isn’t the first time Gibson has stood accused of complying with foreign laws in a manner the U.S. government found unsatisfactory:

The government has focused on a March 2009 shipment of ebony from Madagascar intended for guitar fingerboards. Madagascar law bars the export of certain unfinished wood products, according to both Gibson and the government. Gibson says the ebony had been cut into pieces and that local officials approved the export as a legal sale of finished goods."

"U.S. officials described the wood as "sawn timber" and said Madagascar officials were "defrauded" by a local exporter about the nature of the product.”

This makes sense given that United States law enforcement professionals have all sworn an oath to uphold the laws of Madagascar (clearly Madagascar isn’t up to the task). While Gibson, nearly two years later, still hasn't been actually charged with breaking any law, the U.S. government has continued to hold its seized property while Gibson sues to get it back. This is an important principle of American jurisprudence: "You are assumed to be convicted before being proven innocent.

What if you own a vintage guitar that is made of Indian rosewood, does any of this affect you directly as an individual, particularly if you engage in foreign travel? Fortunately, no, you don’t have to worry about ensuring you have complied with secret mystery box laws, you just have to be sure you can properly document the origin, age, and source materials of your decades-old guitar to the satisfaction of U.S. Customs officials.

You have all that, right, and keep it with you at all times? Of course you do. Everybody does.

In related news, Michelle Obama is reportedly on the run from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having trafficked in illegal Gibson guitars…


NOTE: For those interested in a career in law enforcement, the federal government offers many opportunities including The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Justice Services, the Bureau of Land Management’s Office of Law Enforcement and Security, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Security, Safety, and Law Enforcement Office, the Office of the Secretary’s Office of Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Management, the National Park Service’s Division of Law Enforcement, Security, and Emergency Services, and the United States Park Police.

And that’s just in the Bureau of the Interior.  Who knows what exciting law enforcement career opportunities await you at the Department of Education.

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September 1, 2011 at 10:33 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Where is this 'Federal Un-register', a list of all the things the government doesn't (and has no plans to) do for us? I mean hey, I need to make choices in life and I need to know where my 'federal family' fits in to everything!

Posted by: Marty | Sep 1, 2011 9:52:11 PM

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