Henry JuszkiewiczJuszkiewicz photo: shannonpatrick17

This is the first story in a four-part series about how foreign timber companies, Tea Party groups, and Gibson Guitar have turned illegal logging into Republicans’ new cause célèbre. Read part 2, part 3, and part 4.

If you’ve tuned into any of the major jobs speeches recently or the conservative media’s political coverage surrounding them, you’ve heard about newly minted Tea Party hero, Gibson Guitar CEO Henry Juszkiewicz. He was sitting in House Speaker John Boehner’s box during President Obama’s jobs speech. Boehner cited him in his own jobs speech a few days later. According to a count by the nonprofit Media Matters, Fox News has featured his company 24 times in the last couple of weeks.

Juszkiewicz’s elevation to conservative celebrity status may seem a little odd: His company is the subject of a civil case brought by the federal government for allegedly importing illegally logged wood. Federal agents recently raided several Gibson Guitar facilities, apparently on suspicion that the illegal imports continue even while the company faces federal action in the original case.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

At a time when the GOP has been working overtime to tar the Obama administration for the FBI raid of failed solar panel maker and government loan recipient Solyndra, it raises the obvious question: Why would party leaders associate themselves with a company suspected of committing crimes that not only contribute to horrific environmental destruction and corruption in developing countries — but also put legitimate American timber growers, manufacturers, and workers out of business?

The answers shed light on a disturbing trend among too many in the GOP to unquestioningly adopt Tea Party causes. But this is also a story of how foreign companies are finding a new vehicle to advance their lobbying interests in the United States. Just as Asian timber interests have launched a marketing and lobbying campaign to gain access to American markets for questionably logged wood and paper, Tea Party groups are diverting members’ attention to push these same corporate interests, rather than the broad conservative agenda they signed up for.

Over the next three days, I will chart how this stew of foreign money, conservative activists, and an increasingly incautious GOP have used an all American icon — Gibson Guitars — to paint a regulation born with broad, bipartisan support under a Republican president as the jackboot of Big Government, slamming down on American businesses.

Next: Lawless logging and slaughtered wildlife didn’t stop Gibson Guitar.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Editors’ Note — full disclosure: Glenn Hurowitz is currently doing communications work for the Environmental Investigation Agency, a nonprofit advocacy organization that is campaigning to protect the Lacey Act from corporate, Tea Party, and Republican attacks. He wrote these articles as a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a nonprofit that also works to stop illegal logging.

We didn’t post this information when this article was first published, and we should have. We’ve appended it as of Sept. 28, 2011.