Just off Music Valley Drive, a stage sits flanked by high-end cabinet speakers on an early fall afternoon. The October sun is uncharacteristically harsh, and a sweating middle-aged man slumps into a red folding chair. For relief, he shades himself behind a massive swath of white poster board — a sketch of George Harrison holding a guitar that "weeps" red, white and blue tears onto an inverted U.S. map.
Around him, some 500 fellow patriots circulate along the chain-linked perimeter of the sprawling Scoreboard Restaurant & Sports Bar parking lot. The dozen tents erected nearby give it the look of a conservative ideological bazaar. Present are Tea Party chapters from across Nashville and beyond; political action groups like Lou Ann Zelenik's anti-Muslim Tennessee Freedom Coalition; and ambassadors from the Glenn Beck-inspired 9/12 Project and Black Robe Regiment.
There's even a senatorial candidate named Zach Poskevich, a Gulf War veteran who aims to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Corker — an anti-choice, pro-Bush tax cut Republican who scored an 83 on the American Conservative Union's Ratings of Congress report card — because he isn't conservative enough. To anyone who's attended a Tea Party rally recently, the politically incorrect T-shirts are familiar — "What's the difference between Obama and Osama? B & S" remains a favorite — as are slogans such as, "Big government is the problem!" "Regulations hurt business!" and "We want our country back!"
The day's featured speakers are also known quantities, including Amy Kremer, president of the Koch-funded Tea Party Express, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, voted "100 percent conservative" four times on the ACU's report card. What's unusual is the cause. The rally is a show of solidarity with one of the world's most famous guitar manufacturers, Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp.
In August, for the second time in two years, the guitar-making giant had its Tennessee facilities raided by gun-toting agents of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency alleges that Gibson has illegally imported ebony and rosewood — primary components of its high-end guitars, which retail for upwards of $3,000.
Gibson, in response, accuses the Obama administration of selective targeting. And Gibson CEO and co-owner Henry E. Juszkiewicz has found a receptive audience. He takes the stage, mic in hand, to address his company's political bedfellows.
"I am so proud to be here with you," Juszkiewicz tells the crowd. "I feel so great that so many people have taken on our cause. I am proud to stand here and say that we're gonna fight the injustice and the unfairness together. You know these are really great days where all around the world people with guns are losing to the will of the people, and you are the people.
"You have the right to fairness, to justice, to prosperity, to jobs, but you need to stand up," Juszkiewicz continues, his voice echoing off the blacktop near Opry Mills. "So anyway, I thank you very much in being here supporting Gibson, and we will fight, and we will make changes. We will make sure other companies and other people do not face bullies with guns. With your help, we will make permanent changes. Thank you very much for being here. I appreciate it."
The ironies here are dizzying. Thanks to legislation voted into existence by some of the same Republican lawmakers on the dais today — over the veto of a Republican president — Gibson now argues it has become a target for politicized government interference. What's more, it's legislation that was drafted to protect American jobs (including those in the timber industry), yet it has been seized upon as proof the federal government means to throttle small businesses. Now charges of partisan bias, federal meddling and selective enforcement — feebly disputed by the Obama administration — have thoroughly obscured the issues behind the raid.
But the questions still bear asking. Did Gibson knowingly violate the Lacey Act? Was the company aware of the economic and environmental impact of illegal logging in Third World countries? Did the company know that it contracted with importers and exporters who willingly violated the trade laws of multiple countries?
And these raise yet another concern: Did Juszkiewicz then co-opt anti-government fervor to distract the public from the details of a federal investigation?
Over the past month, the Scene has attempted to reach Juszkiewicz through Gibson's media relations department about these allegations, making repeated requests for comment by phone and email and sending detailed questions. After receiving one final request, Juszkiewicz's office responded that he would not be able to respond by press time.
But as it turns out, many of the answers may be in plain sight, in public records and court documents.
To be sure, the Gibson controversy has exposed confusion over the Lacey Act, the century-old law (named for its Republican sponsor) that made illegal the importation of unfinished wood. That's why U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, arriving in Nashville this week, is expected to introduce legislation on Thursday aimed at refining the amendment that caused the flap.
The proposed legislation, sources tell the Scene, would create a database of all foreign customs and trade laws, which otherwise might be hard for businesses to navigate. Cooper's bill would also introduce a "grandfather clause," by which any product containing wood that was illegally imported prior to May 2008 (when the Lacey Act was amended) would be made legal.
(According to U.S Attorney Jerry Martin, whose office is leading the prosecution against Gibson for alleged customs fraud and violations of the Lacey Act, the Department of Justice never had any intention of arresting people just for owning Gibson products manufactured with illegal wood, as many feared. But no worry: Under Cooper's legislation, Ted Nugent would be free to shred "Stranglehold" on his Gibson whenever and wherever, safe from the ring of Fish & Wildlife jackboots.)
The Hobbesian chaos of the illegal wood trade, fueled by a desire for expensive instruments and cheap furniture, is just one example of what the much-maligned and little-understood Lacey Act was intended to guard against. Bribery and market manipulation don't just undermine the value of foreign labor and accelerate environmental devastation; they undercut the competitiveness of America's own timber manufacturers — many of them small businesses that cannot compete against Chinese-made Walmart dinette sets.
In a letter to House colleagues dated Sept. 19, 2011, Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon — one of the co-sponsors of the Lacey Act amendment — argues that, for these reasons, criticism of Lacey is misplaced.
"This law does not force companies to outsource labor," Blumenauer wrote. "In fact it protects thousands of U.S. workers and companies. For instance, a common source of illegal timber is from the anarchic Russian-Chinese border. That timber is often illegally harvested and turned into cheap furniture imported into the U.S."
Jameson French, chairman of the Hardwood Federation, a D.C.-based trade-association representing thousands of American wood product harvesters, wholesalers and manufacturers, thinks that the Tea Party has been too quick to jump on Juszkiewicz's right-wing bandwagon.
"I can assure you that large numbers of the 13,000 small businesses that are members of the Hardwood Federation ... are Tea Party, and many of them are Republican voters," French told ThinkProgress on Sept. 20. "I think the small businessman is saying 'What's going on here? We like the Lacey Act. It's helped keep our jobs in our facility.' "
But Juszkiewicz's rush to politicize the federal seizure of alleged contraband as a Tea Party rallying cry may have been as shrewd as it was quick. Immediately following the Aug. 24, 2011, raid on Gibson's Tennessee facilities — which resulted in the confiscation of approximately $500,000 worth of unfinished Indian rosewood and ebony planks, guitars and hard drives located in its Nashville headquarters — the normally soft-spoken CEO unleashed a media blitzkrieg.
"We feel totally abused," Juszkiewicz told reporters at an Aug. 25 press conference held in front of Gibson's 641 Massman Drive manufacturing plant. "We believe the arrogance of federal power is impacting me personally, our company personally, and the employees in Tennessee, and it's just plain wrong."
In an accompanying press release, the company maintained that the government was abusing its power and vowed to "fight aggressively to prove our innocence." Gibson then began issuing tweets from its official Twitter account with the anti-authoritarian hashtag "#ThisWillNotStand," accusing the Justice Department of abusing its authority.
None of these addressed the concerns about Gibson's wood-importing operations. Nor did appearances by Juszkiewicz on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, Fox News' Hannity and Glenn Beck's radio program. Instead, the embattled CEO portrayed himself as a martyr whose all-American, domestic-job-creating private company was bullied by an evil federal bureaucracy more concerned with punishing its political enemies than creating jobs.
"We don't [know] what is motivating it," Juszkiewicz said Sept. 26 on the Hugh Hewitt Show. "It is ... clear to me that there is some terrific motivation because we are not the only company that uses this type of wood. Virtually every other guitar company uses this wood, and this wood is used prominently by furniture and architectural industries, and to my knowledge none of them have been shut down or treated in this fashion." (What Juszkiewicz fails to mention is that those companies may have obtained their wood legally.)
In response, the conservative blogosphere was more than eager to rally behind the harrowing story of some 30 gun-wielding federal agents treating an American business enterprise like a Cosa Nostra outfit amid a worsening recession.
"Whatever the specious merits of the government's investigation, the broader lesson is that federal regulatory authority is so expansive and vague, it enables corrupt bureaucrats to intimidate and punish nearly any honest business that falls under Washington's crosshairs," reads an Aug. 29 blog post on Redstate.com. "Rather than thanking Gibson for its entrepreneurial spirit and being an ambassador for the U.S. everywhere guitars are played, the Obama Administration has used a book of dirty tricks to stymie Gibson. Gibson's factories were raided two years ago, when government agents seized valuable inventory, yet the government never brought charges and refused to explain why it was still keeping Gibson's property."