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A Sonoma County-based supplier of guitar-making parts<NO1><NO> is ensnared in an international smuggling investigation after federal authorities seized 24 pallets of exotic wood that it had imported from India.

The case involves world famous Gibson Guitar and is rattling the North Coast's tight-knit artisan guitar trade, with many guitar makers, whose instruments can sell for as much as $30,000, now unsure whether their own supplies include illegal woods.

"This is very, very serious for people who make their living doing this, we're actually quite terrified," said Tom Ribbecke, a veteran Healdsburg luthier — the term for makers of stringed instruments.

The federal actions, including a raid on Gibson warehouses and offices, have cause a political fight on the national level and spotlighted arcane international and domestic trade laws.

<NO1><NO><NO1><NO>Windsor-based Luthiers Mercantile International, or LMI, imported the $200,000-worth of Indian rosewood and ebony to sell to Gibson, which uses it for fingerboards, which overlay guitar necks.<NO1><NO>

On Aug. 24, federal agents descended on a Nashville, Tenn., warehouse where LMI's wood was waiting for Gibson to take possession. They seized the wood along with Gibson computer hard drives and guitars.

The wood was "unlawfully imported, purchased and received," said U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent John Rayfield in an affidavit filed in support of the raid.

LMI officials say minor paperwork mistakes by their import broker on a separate wood shipment led to the raid.

"It's a legal export, it's a legal import," said Natalie Swango, the company's general manager.

Though LMI has imported rosewood from India for decades, the U.S. government is now saying "that Indian rosewood fingerboards are an illegal export, period," she said.

LMI has been subpoenaed for its records, Swango said.

Many of Sonoma County's estimated 100 luthiers, who<NO1><NO> depend on tropical exotic hardwoods that have particular resonant qualities, say their futures are at stake in how the case develops.

<NO1><NO>"It's a scary time for us all because there's a lot of misinformation and it's very hard to get an accurate perspective on whether the government is going to focus on smaller makers or not," said Stuart Day, a Healdsburg luthier.

<NO1><NO>Ribbecke, whose guitars are displayed in the Smithsonian Museum, calls his store of wood, purchased over decades, "my 401(k)." He fears that if authorities decide some of it is illegal, they will take it.

"The Lacey Act (the U.S. law under which LMI's wood was seized) also makes all of our material that all of us have been saving and setting aside for our retirement illegal for us to own," he said.

His worries are <NO1><NO>deepened because trade laws underlying the government's allegations make the case more complicated than simply whether, in this particular shipment, LMI either made a mistake or did wrong.

Since 2008, the Lacey Act has made it illegal to bring wood into the United States that was exported illegally from a country of origin. The factors that make an export illegal have to do with wood species, foresting practices and the wood's dimensions and degree of finish.

But under World Trade Organization laws — known <NO1><NO>as the "Harmonized Schedule" — what is legal in one country can appear illegal in another, based on differences in national tariff codes.

The Justice Department and Fish and Wildlife Service would not comment for this article, but their actions have spurred fears that the landscape for importing wood for guitars is changing with neither explanation nor warning.

"The problem is everyone's been bringing in these woods for 20 years now and it never got challenged," said Chuck Erikson, of Grass Valley, whose Duke of Pearl company supplies shells and inlay to guitar makers.

"All of a sudden builders like that find themselves in a position of having a lot of wood that's declared illegal to take across the border," he said.

"It's capricious enforcement," Ribbecke said.

<NO1><NO>Responding to questions from Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, the Justice Department said <NO1><NO>in September that it isn't interested in going after "people who unknowingly possess instruments or other products" containing illegal wood.

But asked whether enforcement might extend to artisan luthiers, spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle said the department would not comment.

"It's very worrisome, because all of a sudden you don't know what the rules are," said Eric Monrad, another Healdsburg luthier.

"Could they show up on my door and seize my computers and take my wood?" he said. "It happened to Gibson. It concerns me a lot because of the uncertainties."

While Gibson holds an iconic status among American businesses, independent luthiers have a much lower-profile position. That could put them in peril if, with Gibson in mind, the government moves to tighten Lacey Act rules.

"The smaller makers are at threat of being crushed right now because of the unawareness of who we are and what we do," Day said.

Even as confusing tariff codes are parsed, the case has become the subject of a heated political fight.

Republicans and Fox News commentators have said that the raid demonstrates that the Obama administration over regulates business, and tea party activists have rallied to protest the Lacey Act.

In turn, Democrats have charged that Republicans would undermine the American timber industry, and liberal media watchdog groups have dissected Fox's coverage of the story and pointed out that President George Bush signed the law into effect in 2008.

"It's a very interesting international trade law issue that normally would be handled behind closed doors in Washington and Geneva, but has sprouted from the bottom up and has become a political story and issue at the federal level," said trade attorney Klint Alexander, a law and political science professor at Vanderbilt University who has followed the case.

The issue <NO1><NO>takes on larger importance <NO1><NO><NO1><NO>in a down economy and in the <NO1><NO>bitter partisan atmosphere with an election approaching, said Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar.

"Right now, everybody, each party, is trying to find ways to gain traction on the jobs issue and put the blame on the other foot," Ornstein said.

Gibson Guitar co-owner and CEO Henry Juszkiewicz has pushed the political battle. He was a guest of House Speaker John Boehner's at Obama's jobs speech and has released a video accusing the government of "bullying and harassing" his company.

But many others in the industry have shied away from the political dispute, saying the issue needs to be addressed at different points in the system.

"It's not a political issue, it's a regulatory and enforcement issue," said Erikson.

Until it is resolved, the industry is on tenterhooks, said Swango.

"Everybody's running scared," she said. "They could totally break this business with little or no effort if they decide to start looking at everything and holding things up for a long time."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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