- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 21, 2011

NASHVILLE, TENN. (AP) - 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.

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