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Details come to light on Gibson’s Lacey Act Raid

August 12, 2010

I've been waiting for more details on last November's raid by federal authorities on Gibson Guitar's Nashville, Tenn., facilities, which involved claims that wood the plant was using was illegally logged under the new Lacey Act amendments.

This was the first major "bust" associated with the amendments, so there was a pretty big spotlight on it. But information on what was happening was spotty.

Just this week, the U.S. Attorney's Middle District office in Tennessee filed documents to confiscate items it believes are or were made using illegal timber. Those documents detail some of what has been happening.

The documents say that federal law enforcement officials took from Gibson: a pallet of ebony fingerboards, two other pallets of ebony wood products, ebony necks, drying ebony, plus a good many records and six guitars.

Here are the details of the investigation:

In September 2009, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported to a U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agent the import of a shipment of Madagascar ebony wood at the port of Newark, N.J., from a Germany company called Nagel to Gibson Guitars.

Its import declaration package and invoices were for 5,200 pieces of sawn ebony and 2,133 pieces of sawn Madagascar black ebony, with a total value $76,437.

Gibson had placed the order via Nagel GMBH and Co KG of Hamburg, Germany, which exported the ebony through its affiliate Hunter Trading Corp. of Westport, Conn.

When the wood entered the U.S. en route to Gibson, it was missing the plant products declaration required by the Lacey Act. This looks like it's where Gibson got caught.

When the declaration was made a day later, it was listed as ebony harvested from Madagascar.

Madagascar has had rules in place restricting the harvest and export of ebony and rosewood since 2000. From what I've read, it does authorize some shipments of fallen timber. But mostly, that ebony is illegal timber.

Nagel has been Gibson's exclusive supplier of imported Madagascar ebony since 2006 and continued to import from it after the Lacey Act Amendments came into effect on May 22, 2008.

Nagel purchased the timber from its exclusive supplier of Madagascar timber, Roger Thunam, whose business dealt "almost exclusively in sawn wood or logs which at least as of 2006 were illegal to export from Madagascar," court documents said.

In fact, at the end of one of its footnotes, the U.S. FWS agent discussing Thunam in the court documents says in bold type: Supplier of Madagascar Ebony to Nagel Deals Almost Exclusively in Illegal Ebony.

Bank records indicated that Nagel had exported at least $1.3 million worth of timber between 2005 and 2009 from Thunam.

While Thunam was authorized to export some ebony finished product by Madagascar government officials, he was not authorized to export unfinished, semi-worked or sawn ebony since 2006, court documents indicate.

Those types of wood appear to be the pieces the government is trying to seize, or at least that's my guess.

The U.S. government also couldn't find where Thunam's stock of ebony was registered with the Madagascar government, which keeps records of timber stock and exports. The documents also indicate that Gibson officials were aware that it was illegal to harvest and export ebony and rosewood from Madagascar.

With no species on the import documents - it looks like Gibson might've been a sitting duck here.