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Archive for January, 2019

I thought Councilwoman Jolie Justus would become the favorite in the Kansas City mayor’s race, and a story in today’s KC Star confirms that’s the case.

Jolie

For the most recent quarterly campaign report — covering October through December — Justus raised more than three times as much the next-closest candidate, Steve Miller.

According to Allison Kite’s story, Justus now has $250,000 in the bank, trailing only Miller, who has about $252,300. She has pushed well past Councilman Scott Taylor, the early fund-raising leader, who has $177,000 on hand.

It was heartening to see a fleshed-out campaign-finance story in The Star. Those have been in short supply under the two previous City Hall reporters. I hope Kite, who recently moved to the City Hall beat, continues giving readers substantive reports on all facets of the mayor’s race.

But now the cudgel: Kite exhibited her lack of knowledge about local political donors when she wrote, “LJ Kissick, of Kissick Construction, gave (Scott) Wagner $1,000.

From the way that was written, I can tell she had no idea she was writing about Lloyd James “Jim” Kissick III, a high-profile contractor, or knows ( or knew) who he was.

Kissick

This is the second time within six weeks The Star slighted Kissick, longtime president of Kissick Construction Co. First, Star editors didn’t see fit to write a news story about him after he died suddenly Dec. 8. And now this…just another abbreviated name on a campaign finance report.

Of course, this isn’t all Kite’s fault. Very few, if any, editors left at 1601 McGee would know who Jim Kissick was.

**

While we’re talking about slights and The Star, how about the paper’s failure to report (as far as I can tell) the Kemper Museum’s hiring of a new executive director?

KCUR reported on Jan. 11 that Sean O’Harrow, who has been director at the Honolulu Museum of Art the last two years, will begin his new job Feb. 11.

Sean O’Harrow

KCUR’s Laura Spencer reported that O’Harrow was born in Paris and raised in Honolulu and that one of his parents is from the Midwest, the other from Vietnam.

In all fairness, Spencer also deserves a cudgel: She failed to report O’Harrow’s age. An October 2016 story in the Honolulu Star Advertiser said he was 48 then. By my keen mathematical calculations, that would make him about 50.

(Editor’s note: As a matter of full disclosure, our daughter Brooks Fitzpatrick is the “visitor services associate” at the Kemper. When you enter the lobby, she’s at the front desk, a.k.a., “the donut.”)

**

Now that the bell ending today’s Journalism 101 class has rung, we can move on to a final note…

I heard from a friend that Joe Popper, a former KC Star reporter, died recently, apparently of lung cancer.

Popper, who specialized in “long-form” journalism, was with the paper’s Sunday magazine from 1985 to 1990, and he was on the news side for a while after that.

In 1991, when I was City Hall reporter, Popper and I collaborated on two huge stories. One, dubbed “The Monday Morning Club,” recounted how a handful of civic leaders, including Irvine O. Hockaday Jr. of Hallmark Cards, quietly hand picked a community college executive, Brice Harris, to run for mayor.

Brice Harris

The executives, members of the Civic Council of Greater Kansas City, were convinced Harris — with their financial backing and his good looks and apolitical background — would win. But the executives’ political naivete was soon exposed in a down-and-dirty campaign involving several candidates, including Councilman Emanuel Cleaver, Councilman Bob Lewellen and former Independence Mayor Dick King.

Dick King

As things developed, Harris and King destroyed each other with vicious TV ads, and neither made it past the primary election. Cleaver finished first in the primary, ahead of Lewellen. Cleaver then went on to thump Lewellen in the general election.

The primary campaign was one of the most riveting political races Kansas City has ever seen, and Popper and I were fortunate enough to help make it extremely memorable. I will always remember sitting beside Joe as we fashioned that compelling tale about The Monday Morning Club. I provided the bulk of the facts, and he weaved them into gold. The story started on the front page and “jumped” inside, taking up another two full pages. We used to call those “double trucks.” Stories of such length were few and far between.

Joe was about 74. I believe he lived in Weston. Survivors include his wife Judith. (An obit has not yet appeared in The Star…Sorry, I couldn’t find a photo.)

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I remember my horror and chagrin when my hometown paper, The Courier-Journal in Louisville, KY, passed in 1986 from ownership by the esteemed Bingham family to the newspaper chain Gannett.

I couldn’t imagine that paper, which had been one of the best in the country, becoming part of a cookie-cutter operation known for cutting staff and paring back local autonomy.

But, sure enough, that beloved paper got chewed up in the maw of the newspaper giant and passed from being a driving force to a bit player on the local scene.

But now, it appears, things are about to get even worse for the approximately 100 daily papers Gannett owns.

Sunday night (and in yesterday’s print edition) the Wall Street Journal broke the story that a hedge-fund backed media group called Digital First Media was planning to make an unsolicited offer for Gannett — all of Gannett. And that’s what happened yesterday morning, when Digital First made a $12-per-share offer for Gannett, whose stock closed at $9.75 last Friday.

Indicative of what’s been going on elsewhere — including with Kansas City Star owner McClatchy Co. — Gannett had lost sufficient market value that it will have a hard time fending off what is probably an unwelcome bid.

Despite the overall anemic state of the newspaper industry, daily newspapers continue to generate a lot of revenue, which makes them appealing to the hedge-fund operators.

Like catfish after minnows, the hedge funds have been moving into the newspaper waters with the idea of “harvesting marketing position,” or, more colorfully, gorging themselves on the revenue and then swimming away from the detritus.

That’s what Digital First has done in Denver at the Denver Post. Last year, Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, sent shock waves through the newsroom when it announced it was laying off an additional 30 Post employees, after having decimated the staff over the preceding years. One report said Alden’s announcement of the layoffs was greeted with “sobs, gasps, expletives.”

“Sobs, gasps, expletives” greeted the announcement of a new round of layoffs at the Denver Post last year.

It’s not clear how Gannett will respond to Digital First’s offer, but it issued a statement yesterday, saying its board would “carefully review the proposal…to determine the course of action that it believes is in the best interest of the company and Gannett shareholders.”

What could develop now is a merger between Gannett and Tribune Publishing, the Chicago-based chain that owns The Chicago Tribune and several other large newspapers, including the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Gannett made a big push to buy Tribune two years ago but backed away at the last minute. With Digital First lurking outside the door, it could push Gannett to renew its courtship with Tribune.

Ken Doctor

In a blog post yesterday, Ken Doctor, the nation’s foremost newspaper industry analyst, predicted merger and acquisitions would be the big newspaper-industry stories this year.

He wrote:

“Consolidation (and the cost-cutting that comes with it) remains the dominant strategy in the daily newspaper industry. If revenue continues to drop at or even near double-digit levels, the consensus thinking is that radically reducing expenses through consolidation is about as good a card as anyone has to play. Eliminate or reduce corporate staffs, centralize everything that can be centralized, and maybe in some cases continue to make small investments in newer revenue streams.”

**

You will recall (yes, you will) that McClatchy made a run at Tribune late last year, but Tribune rejected its offer.

I doubt McClatchy is in a position to renew its pursuit of Tribune. McClatchy’s largest single investor and creditor is another hedge fund, Chatham Asset Management, but McClatchy and Chatham are boxed in by an $800-million debt, a remnant of McClatchy’s 2006 purchase of the Knight Ridder chain.

…With the hedge funds now striking out more aggressively at the newspaper industry, it is clearer than ever that the best hope for newspapers trapped in the netting of the big chains is to be purchased by wealthy local individuals who believe in the viability and importance of locally owned newspapers.

Patrick Soon-Shiong

That has happened, among other places, in Washington D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and, last year, Los Angeles, where a surgeon and entrepreneur named Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased The Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune from Tribune Publishing for $500 million.

Soon-Shiong didn’t buy the papers as gifts to those cities; he bought them because he believes he can invest in them and inject them with new life.

I share Soon-Shiong’s belief in local newspapers. The Star, too, could be resurgent. Yes, it will continue to fade as a print product, but with a debt-free restart, wise management and good marketing, I believe it could be developed into a first-rate, online product.

The hardest part would be prying it loose from the grubby hands of Chatham and McClatchy. That would be the case even in bankruptcy because the catfish would be circling, eyeing the whole 29-part chain. With The Star being the most profitable paper in the McClatchy chain, it would go for a hefty premium, whether bought straight from McClatchy or from whatever outfit succeeds McClatchy.

But have no illusions: It’s the last, best chance for The Star to regain its former status as an outstanding information provider and a critical part of the Kansas City fabric. Somebody needs to Save our Star.

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Winning headlines

Since the 1990s, when Dinn Mann became sports editor (he went on to run Major League Baseball’s website), The Star has been known for its witty, double-entendre sports headlines.

During the last dozen years of the newspaper industry’s (and The Star’s) downward spiral, that has been one aspect of the paper that has not ebbed.

After yesterday’s huge Chiefs’ win, I was looking forward to seeing today’s print edition (that’s the only way you get the full effect) to see what sports editor Jeff Rosen and his team would come up with.

They did not disappoint.

For those of you who don’t get the print edition, or are out of town, or couldn’t fish the paper out of the snow drifts, here are the headlines from yesterday’s memorable win over the Indianapolis Colts.

Congratulations to The Star and especially the sports department. These headlines were among the best ever…

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It’s been a long time since a local politician stood up to Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and I wasn’t surprised, reading this morning’s KC Star, to see the person standing up to them now is Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker.

Peters Baker is one of the few Kansas City or Jackson County elected officials with a spine stiff enough to challenge the firefighters.

The issue is a new contract between the county and Local 42, which represents the assistant prosecutors working under Baker. The assistant prosecutors are one of a dozen bargaining units represented by Local 42, whose largest constituency, of course, is the 1,000-plus staff of the Kansas City, MO, Fire Department.

Two main issues are on the table. First, Local 42 wants to raise starting prosecuting attorneys pay to more than $61,000 — up from the current $50,000.

Second, Local 42 wants the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to handle disputes that go to arbitration, while Peters Baker wants to continue with retired judges doing the job.

Local 42 officials don’t think retired judges can be impartial because of their connection with the county, and Peters Baker, on the other hand, said the federal mediation service would be too costly.

I don’t think Local 42 is off base in asking for salaries of $61,000 or more for prosecutors — assuming, that is, we’re talking about full-time prosecutors. But her position that using the mediation service would be much more expensive than retired judges strikes me as very logical, and I hope she prevails on that point.

As usual, however, Local 42 officials are making outrageous statements and figuratively frothing at the mouth.

Tim Dupin

For example, Local 42 president Tim Dupin alleges Peters Baker is trying to “bust the union.”

What balderdash. (And how irresponsible for The Star to put such hyperventilation in its headline).

Overall, Local 42 might represent a couple of thousand union workers. The prosecutor’s office probably doesn’t have more than 30 assistant prosecutors. So, how in the world could a contract involving a few dozen workers “bust” a union the size of Local 42?

In its skirmish with Peters Baker, Local 42 is getting help from its umbrella organization, the Greater Kansas City AFL-CIO, which has about 50 affiliated unions. In support of Local 42, the AFL-CIO has taken the step of voting to stop contributing money to the Missouri Democratic Party, which Peters Baker has headed since last month.

According to The Star, nearly 14 percent of the state party’s contributions last year came from unions, so if the labor stalemate continues very long, it could set the party’s fund-raising back significantly.

This could also have political ramifications for Peters Baker, who probably has statewide political aspirations. The fact that she appears to be putting the county’s interests before her own is another reason to applaud her pluck in this matter.

**

Louie Wright

Local 42 has long been used to getting its way.

Going back to Local 42 president Louie Wright, who served as union president for about 30 years before retiring in 2012, the firefighters have always played hardball, holding in their back pocket the ultimate threat of a firefighter strike in Kansas City. They went on strike in 1975 and four years later engaged in a work slowdown, and both events threw residents into a state of anxiety.

Here’s why Local 42 almost invariably prevails:

:: Their leaders are relentless. Every benefit they can extract and every dollar in pay they can get for their members benefits all current firefighters and the legions of firefighter “brothers” who come after them. One big benefit of pay raises is higher pensions, which are tied to salary levels.

:: They are a powerful political force. They vote, and they campaign hard for their candidates. More than 25 years ago the union filed and won a lawsuit that gave it and its members the right to be active politically, including contributing to candidates. (Before that, firefighters hid behind the skirts of an organization called Taxpayers Unlimited, which they contended was populated by their wives and other relatives.)

:: Most elected officials don’t want to tangle with them because…well, see above…Candidates who have the backing of Local 42 generally have better chances of winning than those who don’t. As a result, when push comes to shove, elected officials — primarily City Council members — usually back down quickly, sometimes after initially declaring they will fight tooth and nail to defend taxpayers’ interests.

:: Finally, the vast majority of bureaucrats charged with negotiating with Local 42 (such as personnel directors) don’t have much incentive to engage in a protracted fight. In most cases, the bureaucrats aren’t going to get pay or pension increases regardless of how disputes are resolved. Most bureaucrats are putting in their time and trying to keep their powder dry until they can retire and start drawing their own pensions.

**

Thus, it’s rare to see a prominent elected official go to the mat with Local 42.

But it sure is refreshing, and it warms my heart.

We Jackson County taxpayers can be grateful for Jean Peters Baker’s display of guts. She is the kind of politician who deserves our unconditional support now and going forward. I hope some day she’ll carry the title of governor or U.S. Senator.

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Do you remember how quietly former Kansas City Police Chief — now Jackson County Sheriff — Darryl Forte left the police department in 2017?

He announced in March of that year that he would be retiring after six years as chief. Less than two months later, he was gone.

On his last day in office, which should have been cause to celebrate 32 years on the force, he wouldn’t even consent to be interviewed.

And what was the biggest “takeaway” from his retirement? Well, we all remember that, don’t we? A $500,000 windfall in accrued vacation, sick and comp time. Basically, Forte snuck out the back door with money spilling out of his pockets.

At the time, it was hard to figure out why he floated away so quietly, even with the half-million-dollar golden parachute wadding up around him. In the past few days, though, it has become clear why Forte didn’t want any hoopla about his departure: The lead headline on Wednesday’s front page said it all…

17 disciplined after failures in KC police children’s unit  

Had The Star chosen to add an editorial element to that headline, it would have looked like this…

17 DISCIPLINED AFTER FAILURES IN KC POLICE CHILDREN’S UNIT!!

Now, more than two years after The Star fleshed out the story it’s clear this is a scandal of epic proportions. Seven officers in the children’s unit lost their jobs; some were transferred to other units; and some were busted and put back on patrol duty.

Apparently frustrated at their heavy caseload, investigators in that unit responded by doing little or nothing. They sat on cases, ignoring them for months and twiddling their thumbs. In some cases, evidence was stuffed into desks with no notes indicating what cases the evidence belonged to. Parents of victims were left frustrated. They and the children who were victimized saw no action taken against perpetrators.

It was truly outrageous — a failure of oversight at several levels up the chain. The buck, of course, stops at the top. That would have been at Forte’s desk.

The investigators’ negligence apparently got started about the time Forte became chief, in 2011. And while he was chief it mushroomed. The way I see it, he allowed it to go on. He had to know about it. There’s no way an entire unit could have been so unproductive without him knowing about it. I believe he just turned a blind eye — didn’t want to open a can of worms he knew would bring terrible publicity down on the department.

But it was so bad it had to come out…couldn’t be contained. Like I said, that was in September 2016, thanks to The Star. And six months later, Forte announced his resignation.

Meanwhile, the police department’s internal investigation dragged on for two years. And then, after it was completed, the new chief, Rick Smith, sat on it for a year. During that year — all of 2018 — Forte was appointed sheriff to succeed Mike Sharp, who had resigned, and in November Forte was elected to serve the last two years of Sharp’s unexpired term.

All I can say is I sure hope Forte sent Rick Smith a big box of candy for Christmas as thanks for delaying release of the damning report until after the election.

There’s no reason that investigation couldn’t have been completed and a report released within a year. In California, in fact, state law requires internal police investigations to be completed within a year. If they’re not, the officer or officers involved can’t be punished.

**

Like criminal defense attorneys, police understand delay can be their friend. In criminal cases, witnesses often move away, change their minds about testifying or even die with the passage of time. Evidence gets stale. And big cases tend to lose their emotional energy.

So that’s the tack Kansas City Police Department officials did with this scandal; they let it get old, hoping most people would forget, or at least that outrage would subside.

Thankfully, The Star didn’t forget, and the editors put the “17 disciplined” story where it belonged, at the top of A-1.

I’m now waiting to see what the editorial board says about Forte and this report. In an editorial about Forte after he announced his retirement, The Star was mostly laudatory, beginning its assessment by saying Forte “will be remembered as the first African-American chief to lead the department.”

The editorial contained just one paragraph about the failures in the Crimes against Children’s unit.

What the editorial should have said was it was too soon to assess his tenure as chief; that a more thorough assessment would have to wait until all the facts surrounding the scandal had come out.

Now we know, and now we can put his years as chief in proper perspective: Darryl Forte — Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forte — presided over the most shameful police department episode during at least the last half century.

…I don’t know if he got a pizza and sheet cake party on his last day as chief, but if he did, he didn’t deserve it. My hope now is that a good candidate will emerge to run against him in two years and shove that scandal down his throat, where it has belonged all along.

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A sickly looking white man driving a red truck; an African-American woman going with her three daughters to a convenience store for breakfast supplies in the darkness of a Houston morning; shots ringing out and penetrating the car.

That chaotic confluence of vehicles, people and weapons exploded recently into a frenzied reaction to an event in which a 7-year-old girl named Jazmine Barnes was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Jazmine

The shooting not only took the life of a happy second-grader, it also triggered a rally — attended by hundreds — with seething racial overtones, the participants believing it had been a straight-up, white-on-black hate crime.

As it now stands, however, this was a case of one horrible mistake on top of another. First, the sickly looking white man — so described by an occupant of LaPorsha Washington’s car, the car in which Jazmine was riding — apparently had nothing to do with the crime. Police now believe he might simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. After or during the shooting, he drove off. Police are still looking for him to find out what he knows.

Second, it was a black man, being driven by another black man, who shot into Washington’s car. They — and here’s the most maddening thing about this heartbreaking and opaque tragedy — attacked because they mistook the car for one whose occupants they had argued with hours earlier.

After the Dec. 30 shooting, Washington, who was wounded in the arm, told The Houston Chronicle she believed the attack was racially motivated, and the case whipped up attention from civil rights activists across the country.

“I have no tint on my windows or anything so you can see there is a mother — a black mother — with daughters, beautiful children,” Washington told CNN. “You took my baby from me and you have no care in the world.”

LaPorsha Washington at a rally in Houston on Saturday

Nothing in that quote was inaccurate, but within the context of her allegation that the shooter was white, it whipped many people into a frenzy.

And then things started to turn.

Shaun King, a social justice activist and journalist, got a tip that the the shooting had been a case of mistaken identity and that the initials of the men involved in the shooting were “LW” and “EB.” The tipster said the two men did not realize they had shot into the wrong vehicle until they saw TV news reports the night of the shooting.

On the basis of the tip, investigators arrested 20-year-old Eric Black Jr. Saturday after stopping him for a lane-change violation. On Sunday he was charged with capital murder after telling police he had been driving the vehicle and a companion had shot into Washington’s car. The second man has been identified as 24-year-old Larry Woodruffe. He was already in custody on drug charges and is likely to be charged in Jazmine’s killing.

…And then there’s the confounding element of the sickly looking white man driving the red truck. After the shooting, police distributed a composite sketch of the man and considered him a suspect on the basis of a description given by 15-year-old Alxis Dilbert, Washington’s oldest daughter, who had been sitting in the front passenger seat, directly in front of Jazmine.

Alxis told police she noticed a red truck pull up beside their vehicle. She described the driver as a blue-eyed white man wearing a black hoodie and looking sickly. She didn’t think much about the truck until it changed lanes, moving around to the driver’s side of the Washington vehicle. The girl said the man then opened fire.

As they should have, Harris County Sheriff’s Department investigators released the composite sketch (below left), as well as a frame from a video that showed the red truck (below center).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the incident started coming into clearer focus, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez pointed out something we all know — that in an instantly developing accident or crime, it is very easy for witnesses and victims to form erroneous impressions of what took place.

“It went down very quickly when the gunfire erupted,” Gonzalez said. “You’re talking about small children; they witnessed something very traumatic, and it’s very likely the last thing they did see was indeed that red truck — and the driver in that red truck — and that’s what they remember last.”

**

Now, after all the tumult and all the ramped-up feelings, we’re left with one problem that has been with us a long time and will be with us for a long time to come: race relations.

The other thing we’re left with: the loss of an innocent girl who was barely old enough to be thinking about becoming a teenager, much less the possibility of a violent death.

We truly are a broken people, aren’t we?

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With the passage of time, it is becoming increasingly clear how lucky former Gov. Eric Greitens was.

Last spring, two criminal charges against him were dropped — one because he agreed to resign, the other because of prosecutorial overreach — and last week fellow Republican and Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley dropped investigations into two possible misuse-of-funds cases.

It is absolutely galling to see such a loathsome individual walk off into the sunset with so much scandal in his wake. He certainly appears to be one of the crookedest people to reach Missouri’s highest elective office in many decades.

Just to recap…

:: On May 30, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner announced her office has reached a deal to dismiss a felony charge of computer data tampering against the governor. That was a day after Greitens announced he was stepping down.

:: Earlier in May, Gardner dropped another felony charge in the wake of accusations she had failed to properly oversee a special investigator who investigated an allegation that Greitens had taken a compromising photo of a woman with whom Greitens had had an extramarital affair.

:: Last Friday, with Hawley on his way out as attorney general (he’ll be sworn in today as a U.S. Senator), his top assistant cleared a veterans’ nonprofit group, The Mission Continues, which Greitens founded, of allegations it had illegally supplied its donor list to Greitens’ gubernatorial campaign. (The donor list was also at the root of the computer-tampering charge.)

:: Hawley’s top assistant also cleared Washington University of St. Louis of possible wrongdoing pertaining to an academic grant. Greitens’ campaign was suspected of using part of a $362,000 grant from WashU and the John Templeton Foundation to pay political staff as he began his run for governor. The A.G.’s office said there was no evidence anyone with the university knew about or participated in any misappropriation.

…Yesterday, in its lead story, The Kansas City Star built up false hopes that somehow, some way, Greitens could still end up being held accountable for some of his suspected chicanery. The story reported the release of a report prepared by a special committee of the Missouri House of Representatives.

Even though the committee’s jurisdiction over the matters involving Greitens  ended with his resignation, the chairman of the special committee, Republican Jay Barnes of Jefferson City, said he hoped the Missouri Ethics Commission would “take appropriate action to endorse Missouri’s campaign finance laws against Eric Greitens.”

Jay Barnes

I applaud Barnes for not wanting to bring the hammer down on Greitens, but it is laughable to suggest that the Missouri Ethics Commission might take meaningful action. Although the Ethics Commission can refer complaints to prosecuting authorities, it mostly levies fines for campaign finance violations.

In one of its last significant actions, dating to 2012, it fined two Freedom Inc. officials about $3,000 each for financial irregularities. It also fined the organization’s former treasurer a little more than $500 for failing to keep accurate records.

What can we expect the Ethics Commission to do about Greitens?

Don’t hold your breath. Don’t cross your fingers, and don’t give it another thought. If it does anything, we’ll read about it in a very short story in a year or two. In all likelihood, however, Greitens will keep distancing himself from his past legal troubles.

Our best hope for him getting any kind of comeuppance is that, having emerged legally unscathed from his appallingly scandalous governorship, he resumes his reckless behavior and gets caught in some new, legally questionable foray.

What a turd. At least we can be thankful that when we closed the books on 2018, he was out of the picture.

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