After nearly three years of denying guilt, Gibson Guitar acknowledged Monday that it bought and imported ebony wood illegally from Madagascar in violation of a federal law protecting endangered species, and it will pay a $350,000 penalty.
From the Tennessean: The case had sparked rallies and protests against federal authorities by Gibson Guitar supporters and led to efforts by Tennessee congressional leaders to tweak federal law so it doesn’t make criminals of musicians who own prized guitars that might contain components made with rare foreign woods.
“This is a watershed moment in the battle to stop illegal logging around the world,” said Alexander von Bismarck, executive director of the private Environmental Investigation Agency, who said he led the probe of Gibson’s ebony purchases in Madagascar and turned over findings to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
“It was our private investigation, and we handed it to the authorities,” von Bismarck said. “We published two reports of the investigation and named the key timber barons in Madagascar and their trading partners, and tracked the wood wherever it went. In the United States, it went primarily to Gibson.”
Lifted from Jack McElroy’s blog:
The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government has picked Kent Flanagan to be the organization’s next executive director. Flanagan replaces Frank Gibson, who has moved to a new advocacy role with the Tennessee Press Association.
TCOG represents several organizations with an interest in government transparency, including the News Sentinel and several of the state’s other large newspapers, the press association, the state broadcasters association, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, as well as individuals such as former Knoxville mayor Victor Ashe.
In his new role, Flanagan will work to educate the public on the state’s open-government laws and will advocate for transparency before the legislature and other government bodies.
Flanagan served as a journalist in residence at Middle Tennessee State University after spending more than 20 years as bureau chief in Nashville for The Associated Press. He is a graduate of Angelo State University, served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and Germany, and worked at newspapers in Shelbyville; San Angelo, Texas, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas.
BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — A push to dilute Tennessee’s open meetings law is based on a misunderstanding of restrictions now on the books, an open government advocate said.
The Tennessee County Commissioners Association is spearheading an effort to get the General Assembly to amend the Sunshine Law and allow members of government bodies to discuss public affairs in private, as long as the discussion involves less than a quorum.
The law currently forbids two or more officials on a local legislative body, such as a county commission or city council, from meeting privately to deliberate on government matters.
At least two counties have endorsed the effort, and Sullivan County and Unicoi County commissioners are scheduled to take up the issue Monday.
From Jack McElroy’s blog:
Frank Gibson, director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, is moving to a new role. Starting next week, he’ll be public policy director for the Tennessee Press Association. The good news is that he’ll continue to battle for government access in that job.
Gibson has been synonymous with TCOG since the organization was founded in 2003 to bring together citizens, journalists and lawyers concerned about the preservation and improvement of open-government laws.
Under his leadership, the group has been very successful. Soon after its inception, TCOG conducted statewide public records and open meetings audits that showed the need for additional training and education. In 2006, after the Tennessee Waltz scandal broke, it got open-government language included in the governor’s ethics study commission report and persuaded the legislature to include “sunshine” for the General Assembly in the ethics law. In 2007, it convinced the governor to create the Office of the Open Records Counsel to help enforce the Public Records Act, and in 2008, at its urging, the legislature passed the first improvements to the records law in 25 years.
This past year, Gibson and TCOG battled a number of bills to limit access and public notice. The fight convinced the press association that it needed someone in Nashville year-round, and Gibson was the guy. His departure won’t mean the death of TCOG, however. The organization decided Thursday to draft a job description and appoint a committee to look for a new director, who will team up with Gibson to provide even more firepower in the fight for open government.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Two members of Congress from Tennessee announced federal legislation Thursday seeking to quell fears among owners of musical instruments and other products made from imported wood that they could face prosecution under a law that has led to raids on Gibson Guitar Corp.
Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper and Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn said at a press conference in a Nashville recording studio that the bill would protect people from prosecution for unknowingly possessing illegally imported wood, and would require the federal government to establish a database of forbidden wood sources.
The measure would also exempt any wood imported before 2008 changes to the federal Lacey Act, which bans wood products illegally exported from foreign countries.
“For these old instruments before 2008, you can’t uncut a tree,” Cooper said. “This was already done. It’s spilled milk.”
More on ‘Business Impact’ Fiscal Notes
A proposal to give lawmakers more information about how their decisions will affect businesses is being greeted with enthusiasm, but there also are significant questions about how to carry the idea off, opponents and supporters say. So reports Chas Sisk. Business groups are backing a plan to add a statement of the effect bills will have on business to each piece of legislation filed in Tennessee. The statements would help lawmakers head off costly rules and regulations, supporters say. But some say the move could backfire by making lawmakers more beholden to the opinions of lobbyists and staff members who have been criticized in the past for having too much sway over the legislature
(Previous post HERE) Fleischmann Fundraising
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann raised more than $135,000 during the last three months, a figure that could be eclipsed by a single upcoming fundraiser, his staff told the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The Republican freshman from Tennessee’s 3rd Congressional District finished the July 1-Sept. 30 fundraising quarter with $350,000 on hand for his 2012 re-election bid.
“People are showing obvious support for Chuck’s voting record,” said Jordan Powell, a spokesman for the congressman. Fleischmann plans to boost his bottom line with an Oct. 27 Chattanooga fundraiser featuring House Speaker John Boehner, the face of conservative power in Washington.
Out of 769 total votes, Fleischmann has voted with House leadership 94 percent of the time, according to records maintained by the Washington Post. Tea Party’s Guitar Gathering
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The head of Tennessee-based Gibson Guitar said Saturday that he strongly backs conservation as well as federal enforcement of laws meant to protect the tropical hardwoods that his company uses for instruments.
The comments by Gibson CEO Henry Juszkiewicz follow an August raid by federal agents of Gibson factories in Nashville and Memphis. More than 10,000 fingerboards made from imported Indian rosewood were seized.
Juszkiewicz has said the company faces allegations of using wood from India that is not finished by Indian workers — a potential violation of the Lacey Act.
Speaking to reporters on Saturday at a tea party sponsored “We stand with Gibson” rally in Nashville, Juszkiewicz said he supports the intent of the act, but he called the requirement for Indian workers to finish the wood a “misuse of environmental law.”
“This is not about conservation or illegal logging, to my knowledge,” he said.
Federal prosecutors have filed court papers confirming a criminal investigation. But no charges have been filed, and specifics of the investigation by the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department are under seal. Knoxville Occupied
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Occupy Wall Street movement has made its presence known in Knoxville.
On Friday evening, at least 200 East Tennesseans gathered to raise awareness of the gap that exists between the rich and poor, according to the Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/oZyPbM).
Occupy Knoxville supporters gathered in a park, chanting phrases like “people over profits.” Then they led a candlelight solidarity march around downtown.
Sevierville’s Betsey Rochelle was one of the organizers. She said she heard about Occupy Knoxville on Facebook and came up with the idea for the march.
Rochelle said ordinary people need a voice in government and she believes it is time to get corporate money out of politics.
By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — 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.
Congressman Jim Cooper joined the defenders of Nashville-based Gibson Guitar Corp. Monday, saying the law that makes certain imports of wood illegal is “way too broad,” reports The City Paper. Also Monday, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey called the federal raids of the guitar maker “downright scary” and “abhorrent.” In a commentary on his Facebook page, which he titled “The Criminalization of Free Enterprise,”
Ramsey suggested the Obama administration might have targeted Gibson because its chief executive officer, Henry Juszkiewicz, has made donations to Republicans.
“In fact, the only beef the Obama administration could really have with Gibson Guitars is the political habits of its CEO,” Ramsey wrote, adding: “I hope this is simple coincidence and not something more sinister.”
Federal agents raided Gibson factories in 2009 and again on Aug. 24, confiscating guitars and wood. The Justice Department is pursuing a possible criminal case against Gibson for importing ebony from Madagascar for guitar fingerboards.
Cooper said his office is looking into how to tighten the law that investigators are trying to use against Gibson.
More? See also Nashville Business Journal, and WPLN. Link to Ramsey’s facebook commentary HERE.
And Stacey Campfield has a solution: Passage of his bill requiring federal agents to get local permission before staging a raid in Tennessee.
The 2011 legislative session saw many bills to close public records or reduce public notice of government action, observes Jack McElroy on his blog.
Open government forces mostly prevailed — though some bills will be back again next year — even though some in the new Republican majority seemed to view media as an enemy.
McElroy also provides a roundup listing of open government legislation from Frank Gibson of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the outcome of each bill. It is reproduced below.