— By CHRISTIN COYNE
Searches of two Weatherford businesses last week by federal investigators stemmed from a three-year criminal investigation and reports by former Teskey’s employees that they were instructed to remove required labeling and mislead customers about where items were made, according to search warrants unsealed Thursday.
Both companies have denied knowingly breaking the law and said the family businesses didn’t know the rules.
An Immigrations and Customs Enforcement special agent assigned to the commercial fraud unit in Dallas wrote that he had probable cause that Robert Michael Teskey, owner of Teskey’s, and Robert C. Howard, owner of Bar H, engaged in illegal importation and sale of goods, conspiring to violate two criminal laws relating to country of origin marking requirements on imported goods.
ICE executed search warrants at Teskey’s Saddle Shop in Weatherford, Teskey’s Uptown in Fort Worth and Bar H Equine, located south of Teskey’s Saddle Shop, on Aug. 28. According to warrant returns, investigators seized from the locations computers, documents, miscellaneous leather goods, belts, saddles, “Made in India” labels, and a truck and trailer.
Those convicted of violating the Marking of Imported Articles law could face a fine and imprisonment of up to a year, the search warrant affidavit states. Those convicted of the Entry of Good by Means of False Statements law could face a fine and imprisonment up to two years. However, no arrests have been reported in connection with the ongoing investigation.
Two former employees of Teskey’s Saddle Shop, identified as the importer for “Teskey’s” and “Bar H Equine” branded merchandise, reported in April 2010 that they had been instructed by Teskey to remove labeling from various items before displaying them for sale and to tell customers that the saddlery items were made by Teskey’s in Texas, according to Special Agent Shane Walker.
During the investigation between 2010 and 2013, investigators reportedly located product importation records associated with Teskey’s and an Indian exporter/manufacturer, with declared values for the products totaling nearly $3.8 million.
Officials said they tracked several shipments to Teskey’s of items that were labeled “Made in India” and later collected hundreds of discarded “Made in India” labels from the trash bin outside the business.
During visits to Teskey’s, special agents reportedly observed hundreds of products with no foreign country of origin labeling, many displaying Teskey’s labeling and branding stamp and some with Bar H Equine labeling.
“Teskey’s” branded tack on display throughout Teskey’s Saddle Shop during a June visit did not have country of origin labels and an employee said she did not know where a breast collar was made, Walker wrote. Asked if the belts labeled “Teskey’s” were made locally, another employee allegedly told a special agent that the belts were made in the United States.
The Teskeys are cooperating fully with the government as they’ve done since day one, Toby Galloway, attorney for the Teskeys said, adding that he expects the issue to be resolved swiftly and favorably for the Teskeys.
Galloway declined to comment on the investigation.
Bar H Equine
Walker also visited three retailers in Decatur and Denton that carried leather saddlery items with “Bar H Equine” labeling but noted no country of origin markings on any. Employees at those locations stated the items were made in Weatherford or the United States or assembled in Mexico with U.S. materials, he wrote.
An employee at one retailer told the investigator that the store did not carry products made of “water buffalo” from India and he believed Indian water buffalo to be inferior to U.S. cowhide, according to Walker. The owner of the retail store later referred to Bar H tack in an interview as “imported stuff,” stating he knew it was imported based on his experience and the quality and price of the products. However, he reportedly said he did not notice the products were not marked and was not aware of what country they were from.
Walker noted that a 2011 catalog on the Bar H website did not display any foreign country of origin information and stated that “The manufacturing and distribution of quality saddles and tack started in early 2000 and continues today in Parker County, Texas with Bar H Equine.”
When a special agent visited Bar H Equine in June, the Bar H branded products observed during the visit did not have country of origin labels, Walker wrote. The manager reportedly told the ICE agent that most of their equestrian tack was “made overseas, just so you know,” and that the company’s saddles are all made in Greenville.
Terri Howard, president of Bar H Equine, a family company celebrating its fourth year, said they weren’t aware of the labeling requirements.
“It’s about the country of origin and where it’s placed on the tag,” Howard said of the allegations. “I just didn’t realize where it needed to be on the tag next to the UPC code. We were unaware of that. All they did was tell me what I needed to do and we fixed that and I did business that very same day.”
“We’re just a small little family company,” Howard said, adding that Teskey’s and Bar H have been lumped together.
“Our deal is pretty much something that we didn’t know,” Howard said. “We were told exactly how it needs to be done and, within one minute, we slapped it on there and were able to go back to business as usual.”
Not every product that was shipped to retailers was marked, Howard said, adding that as a new company they didn’t know how things were done and didn’t know the tags that came through customs needed to continue on.
Howard said retailers didn’t know that the labels about the country of origin needed to be affixed to products for sale, either.
“It’s something that’s not new,” Howard said. “It’s just new to the industry, to the mind set .... It’s a learning experience.”
Howard said they have not misled those who carry their products.
“We have over 700 retailers that carry our products and every single one of them know ... we are an import business,” Howard said.
“We started in this business as an import tack,” Howard said, adding everyone is aware of that and that the good quality tack at their price point alone gives it away.
“We have never at any point in time ever said that our tack was made in the United States,” Howard said. “However, with that being said, I do have a line that is made in Texas but that is completely ... you know, it’s separate. Sometimes it’s hard for people to understand [because] we do have so many things go under one roof.”
The statement in the catalog was the mission statement for the family, which has manufactured tack since 2000, Howard said.
They do have saddles and tack that are custom made in Texas, Howard said, adding that all the custom made saddles are created in Texas.
“The main thing that I would like to get across is that we were told what we need to do, we took care of it, and it’s business as usual,” Howard said. “We were not being deceptive to anybody. We are definitely a transparent company. Everybody knows what we do and how we do it and that’s why we are successful.”