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The Raid on Gibson Guitars: Bad Wood or Bad Politics?

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An editorial at Investors Business Daily reexamines the two-year-old Gibson case in light of the recent IRS Tea Party-flagging scandal and inadvertently reveals the real damage caused by the IRS fiasco.

Gibson Raid

In August 2011, minions of the Department of Justice, dressed in swat-team black, swooped into the Gibson Guitars factories in Tennessee with a warrant to search and seize. The reason: The feds believed Gibson -- maker of the famous Les Paul electric guitar and other fine pluckables -- was violating the Lacey Act by importing and using banned wood in its guitars. More specifically, Gibson was accused of importing Indian ebony and rosewood from the pathetically depleted forests of Madagascar.

Cause Célébre

Of course, Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz cried a loud version of foul at the time, including the familiar refrains, “I didn’t know” and “These laws are so complicated...” To Juskiewicz and his supporters, the case was such an obvious example of government overstep that Juskiewicz and Gibson became a cause célebré of the right. House Speaker John Boehner even invited Juskiewicz to be his guest at a presidential address to Congress on jobs.

Juszkiewicz and chorus got considerably quieter after Gibson acknowledged in a settlement with the government that it had not only illegally imported rosewood from Madagascar, but used phony labeling to hide the crime. The settlement also imposed a $300,000 penalty, a $50,000 payment to a conservation fund. The feds also kept the $250,000 worth of wood they'd taken in the raids.

With the agreement, the government dropped all charges, Gibson returned to making guitars, and Boehner and crew scurried off in search of another cause.

The Gibson Case Redux

Who would’ve thought that two years later a couple of IRS workers taking stupid shortcuts in their work would bring the Gibson case out of the cobwebs and put Juszkiewicz right back in line for GOP Martyr-of-the-Month?

With logic that would make Inspector Clouseau blush, a May 23 editorial in Investors Business Daily has taken the Gibson raid, added a few sprinkles of opportunistic paranoia and a dollop of logical fallacy to come up with the real reason the feds raided Gibson.

According to IBD, Juskiewicz and company weren’t popped because Juskiewicz figured the needs of his Les Pauls and Flying Vs were more important than the needs of Madagascar’s forests, animals and people, or because he used his money to support chainsaw-toting thugs who continue to lay waste to the world’s forests. It wasn’t because Juskiewicz was the only American guitar maker who continued to import Malagasy rosewood after being informed it was criminal. It wasn’t even because Gibson had been raided a year before for violating the Lacey Act.

No, the feds raided Gibson because Juskiewicz gives money to Republicans.

Quod erat demonstrandum!

The logic is obvious -- although nonexistent. First, you must believe that the IRS mess was part of a massive Obama-led conspiracy to punish conservatives, not a couple of low-level IRS employees doing dumb things. If you're willing to believe that, then it's easy to assume Obama also ordered his enforcers in the Department of Justice to come down on Republican-friendly makers of guitars and banjos.

If you need more proof than that, you're probably a Democrat.

To bolster its claim of political punishment, the editorial also claims that CF Martin and Co., Gibson's main competitor in the acoustic guitar market, advertises the "exact same wood" in its guitar catalog but was left alone because Martin CEO, Chris Martin, gives money to Democrats.

If IBD had bothered to look a little deeper it would have found that, although it is true that some Martin guitars have rosewood fretboards, it is also true that the Martin Guitar Co. stopped importing rosewood from Madagascar in 2009. In an Aug. 2011 NPR interview, Martin said about the Lacey Act, "I think it's a wonderful thing. I think illegal logging is appalling. It should stop. And if this is what it takes unfortunately to stop unscrupulous operators, I'm all for it. It's tedious, but we're getting through it."

As unhinged as the editorial sounds, I am sure this logical hiccup is just the tip of the iceberg. Hell, the wingers have been calling Obama a tyrant since he took office with no evidence at all to support their claims. But now, with a federal agency admitting it singled out conservative organizations for special treatment, watch the Obama the Terrible accusations fly.

Sure, the more informed among us will continue to roll our eyes at tales of FEMA concentration camps and wholesale gun confiscation and all the other fantasies of the far right. But what about the less informed -- folks whose limit of political activism is voting? The type of low-info voters who are actually swayed by political commercials. Will they understand that the whole mess was caused by a couple low-level IRS employees trying to reduce tax fraud? Or will they now look at Obama through an IRS-Gate filter, and for the first time say, “Hmm, maybe that LaPierre fellow is on to something.”

Let's hope not.

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