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Archive for October, 2019

I made a trip down to the Jackson County Courthouse this snowy afternoon to see what’s new in the David Jungerman and Kylr Yust cases.

They are the defendants, of course, in arguably the two biggest murder cases pending in Jackson County — the killings of lawyer Thomas Pickert (Jungerman) and those of Jessica Runions and Kara Kopetsky (Yust).

When I last reported on the cases, in early September, Jungerman had hired a second lawyer, and a judge had ordered a mental examination for Yust at the request of his public defenders.

Here are the updates…

Jungerman

Jungerman’s newest attorney, David S. Bell of the Wyrsch, Hobbs & Mirakian firm, has filed a motion for a “change of venue,” that is, that the trial be moved to another county primarily because of the extensive publicity the case has drawn.

The trial is scheduled to start Jan. 20, but a change of venue could prompt a delay.

After laying out the circumstances of Pickert’s murder — shot down in his front yard after having walked his two young sons to school — Bell wrote…

This nightmare is forever burned into the hearts and minds of persons living in the metropoitan area as local and national media outlets repeatedly described the scene, the family’s storty and the hunt for the killer…The ongoing and often inflammatory media coverage has irreparably harmed Mr. Jungerman’s ability to receive a fair trial with a Jackson County jury. The inhabitants of Jackson County are so prejudiced against Mr. Jungerman that he cannot receive a fair trial with jurors from Jackson County.

Bell’s motion said the defense had financed a survey of 546 Jackson County residents and that 35 percent of the respondents recall the crime “and virtually 100 percent of the individuals hold an opinion that Mr. Jungerman is ‘probably guilty’ to ‘definitely guilty.’ ”

The decision on a change of venue will be made by Jackson County Judge John Torrence. If he were to grant the defense motion, I believe the trial would have to go to a county approximately the size of Jackson County, which would mean, very likely, St. Louis County or maybe St. Louis City, which has its own court system.

In my opinion, there’s about a 50-50 chance that Torrence will grant a change of venue. The case has drawn a lot of publicity overall but not as much from The Star as the case would have received before The Star began significantly shrinking its coverage area and laying off employees in 2008.

Bell

Ross

Another interesting facet of the case is that Bell has clearly moved into the lead lawyer position, displacing Daniel Ross, whom Jungerman has threatened to fire twice. The most recent time was Aug. 1, when Jungerman filed notice with the court that Ross was no longer his attorney. That same day, Bell filed his “entry of appearance” on behalf of Jungerman. On Aug. 2, however, Ross filed notice that he was still representing Jungerman. The filing bore Jungerman’s signature. Ross’ name has not appeared on any court filing since then.

Yust

In early September, at the request of Yust’s attorneys, Cass County Judge William B. Collins ordered a mental evaluation of Yust by state psychologists. In their Oct. 10 report, two psychologists concluded that Yust was “competent to proceed” to trial, despite the fact that he had “mood-altering symptoms, including anxiety, depression and suicidal gestures.”

The psychologists said Yust’s symptoms had “increased in severity since the discontinuation of his prescribed medications,” and they said medical treatment was “probably necessary.”

In response, Yust’s attorneys filed a motion objecting to the state psychologists’ conclusion that their client was fit to stand trial and asked Judge Collins to order an additional examination “by a doctor of the defendant’s choosing and at his own expense.”

Collins immediately granted that motion.

This will be the second mental examination initiated by the defense. Earlier, the defense had hired a St. Louis psychiatrist named Jose Mathews to examine Yust. Mathews determined that Yust “lacks capacity to understand the proceedings against him or to assist in his own defense and…is mentally unfit at this time to proceed.”

…So now it’s a battle of the psychologists and psychiatrists. If Judge Collins should ultimately determine that Yust is not competent to stand trial, he would order the defendant to be held in a state mental institution, where Yust would undoubtedly be confined for many years. That, of course, would be an unsatisfying development for the many people interested in seeing Yust get his just desserts.

As I said in my last post about this case, there is no doubt that, colloquially speaking at least, Yust is one crazy mother fucker. I hope the doctors get the guy on some good meds and that we see him stand trial relatively early next year.

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What a difference four years makes in the way a failing newspaper chain covers the comings and goings of high-level managers at its own newspapers.

On Sept. 25, 2015, The Star carried a nine-paragraph story about Mi-Ai Parrish resigning as publisher of The Kansas City Star, a McClatchy paper, to take a comparable post at The Arizona Republic, owned by the Gannett chain.

When Kansas native Tony Berg was named to succeed her in early 2016, The Star carried a 13-inch story announcing his arrival as publisher. The story quoted Mark Zieman, McClatchy’s vice president of operations, as saying: “I’m confident Tony has the skills to get us through the digital transformation. He has the drive.”

And yet, last Friday when Berg was let go as publisher of The Star, a 13-paragraph story about Mike Fannin being elevated from editor to president of The Star did not say one word about Berg being summarily demoted from publisher of four McClatchy papers to one, The Wichita Eagle.

The same afternoon, McClatchy also filed a brief (but required) document with the Securities and Exchange Commission announcing the departure of two senior officers, CFO Elaine Lintecum, and…Zieman.

Lintecum’s departure appears to be a straightforward retirement. But Berg and Zieman are probably money-saving moves. The company has been drowning in debt since it paid $4.5 billion for the Knight Ridder chain 13 years ago, and has been throwing its furniture into the fire ever since, trying to get from one winter to the next.

**

When I read The Star’s online story about Fannin’s being named president, I thought McClatchy was giving him an added title mainly to give him a pay raise, with Berg continuing on as publisher.

With no mention whatsoever of Berg, that was a logical assumption.

But how wrong I was!

It took another reporter — former KC Star reporter and now KCUR health and legal affairs editor Dan Margolies to bring the facts to light.

Reading The Star’s story piqued Margolies’ curiosity about Berg, and he smartly went to Berg’s LinkedIn page and saw it listed Berg as publisher of only The Eagle but previously publisher of all four McClatchy Central Division papers — The Star, The Eagle, the Fort-Worth Star-Telegram and the Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat.

With that, Margolies had his story, the headline of which included the words “Publisher Exits for Wichita.”

…I should say Margolies had THE story because The Star certainly failed to inform its dwindling readership what was going on.

In fact, that is probably the most appalling and irresponsible story I’ve ever seen in The Star. It strikes deeply at the paper’s credibility and reinforces President Trump’s much-ballyhooed (but largely off-base) charge that the mainstream media dishes up a steady diet of “fake news.”

I can understand why McClatchy chose to dump Zieman (probably) and demote Berg — like I said, it’s all about money — but as a former Star reporter and editor I am offended and angry that it whitewashed the Berg story…Thirteen paragraphs when he was hired; zero when he’s demoted? The ouster is news by any measure and should have been reported.

**

Back to the money…Next month, McClatchy will report its third-quarter earnings, and I expect a dismal report, albeit draped in the usual pie-in-the-sky verbiage and pretzel-twisted statistics.

The prospect of a bad report may well have been a factor in the Zieman and Berg moves.

In addition, while The Star probably remains McClatchy’s most profitable paper (it has inured advertisers to extremely high advertising rates), print circulation continues to plummet.

Between the third quarter of 2018 and the third quarter of 2019, Sunday print circulation plunged 23 percent — from 104,071 paid copies to 79,976.

Average Monday-to-Friday print circulation went from 66,520 to 54,000, a 19 percent decrease.

Stand-alone digital subscriptions rose from about 7,300 to about 10,000, but that’s paltry for a metro area the size of Kansas City, and digital advertising is not nearly as lucrative as its print counterpart.

In its quarterly reports, McClatchy officers keep emphasizing “the digital transformation,” just as Zieman did when he touted Berg’s arrival three years ago.

It’s becoming clearer every day, though, that no one — not Zieman, not Berg, not CEO Craig Forman — “has the skills to get us through the digital transformation.” McClatchy is in a nosedive and is almost surely going to be sucked up by another chain within a year or two.

Let’s hope The Star’s next owner is more interested in honest and accurate reporting. That’s all we can do, hope.

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On Dec. 31, Mark Zieman, former publisher of The Kansas City Star, will be leaving the McClatchy Co., where he has been vice president of operations the last eight years.

In a day of other swirling developments, Mike Fannin, editor of The Star, is becoming president of The Star, replacing Tony Berg, who has been The Star’s editor and publisher since 2016.

Oddly, The Star’s story about Fannin’s elevation does not say a word about Berg’s move. It was Dan Margolies of KCUR who got the scoop about Berg. Margolies’ story says Berg is becoming publisher of The Wichita Eagle.

Berg had been regional publisher for McClatchy’s Central Division, which included The Star, The Eagle, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Belleville (Illinois) News-Democrat. Margolies said, however, that on Friday Berg’s LinkedIn site listed him as publisher of just the Eagle and as president and publisher of the Central Region until this month.

Mark Zieman

…For many years, The Star has not been forthcoming when writing about its own operations, but failing to report the ouster of The Star’s publisher is a new low in the “lack-of-transparency” category.

It is a terrible disservice to the readers, and it is one reason The Star has lost significant credibility with readers and civic leaders alike.

McClatchy also is guilty of not being forthcoming about personnel moves. It announced Zieman’s resignation not in a news release but very quietly in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing Friday afternoon. SEC rules require publicly owned companies to report the departures of high-ranking corporate officers.

**

A Kansas native, Zieman has spent the majority of his career at The Star. He began there as an editorial intern in 1982 while pursuing a journalism degree at the University of Kansas. After graduating in 1984, he joined the Houston bureau of the Wall Street Journal but returned to The Star as an investigative reporter in 1986.

He became projects editor in 1989, managing editor in 1992, editor and vice president in 1997 and president and publisher in 2008, before moving to Sacramento with McClatchy in 2011.

As projects editor, Zieman directed the paper’s examination of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.

Interestingly, McClatchy said it would not be replacing Zieman, who is either 58 or 59. That could mean Zieman was told his job was being eliminated and was offered the chance to resign. Either way, I’m sure he’ll walk away with a lavish severance package. His total compensation for 2018 was about $1.8 million.

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Fannin, 53, succeeded Zieman as The Star’s editor in 2008, after having served as sports editor and then managing editor. He joined The Star in 1997 after working as an assistant sports editor at The Dallas Morning News. Fannin is a Kentucky native who attended the University of Texas. He started his journalism career at the San Antonio Light, which closed in 1993.

The Star has won some significant journalistic prizes under Fannin, but, along with Berg, he has presided over a long period of stagnation at the paper. The editorial and advertising staffs are shadows of what they once were, and the paper’s “news hole” is much smaller than it was 10 to 15 years ago.

Editor’s note: I rewrote much of this after learning from a regular reader about The Star’s failure to report Berg’s ouster in its story about Fannin.

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It appears the proposed merger between Gannett and GateHouse Media, the two largest newspaper chains in the country, will be accomplished by year’s end.

If that happens, New Gannett would have more than 260 daily papers and more than 300 weeklies.

The antitrust division of the Department of Justice has approved the deal, and shareholders of the two companies are expected to approve the merger next month. Closing on the $1.4 billion deal could follow within days.

The new company would own about one of every six U.S. daily papers and would have a combined print circulation of about 8.7 million — about five times more than the new No. 2 chain, McClatchy, which owns The Kansas City Star.

“Never before in U.S. history have we seen a single company own and manage so much of the American newspaper business,” said Ken Doctor, the foremost authority on the newspaper industry.

Ken Doctor

In the wake of the merger, Doctor foresees much more consolidation in the industry, with several chains — including Tribune Publishing, Lee Enterprises, MNG Enterprises (formerly MediaNews Group) and, of course, McClatchy — in play.

So where might McClatchy and its other papers, including the Miami Herald, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and The Sacramento Bee, end up?

Last year, McClatchy, which has 29 daily papers, made an unsuccessful run at Tribune Publishing, which owns such papers as the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant.

Doctor believes McClatchy and Tribune will attempt to “dance anew,” but I’m not so sure about that. It never made any sense to me that McClatchy was the suitor. For one thing, it carries a hangover $745-million debt from its ill-fated acquisition of Knight Ridder in 2006, while Tribune is debt free. For another, its stock price has continued to slide, to the point that it is now in jeopardy of being de-listed from the New York Stock Exchange.

Whatever happens and wherever McClatchy ends up, the prospects for an improved Kansas City Star don’t look good. At least three of the chains in play for consolidation are indebted to or in the grasp of hedge funds. In the case of McClatchy, it’s Chatham Asset Management, which owns at least 20 percent of McClatchy. With Lee Enterprises, which owns the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it’s Cannell Capital. And MNG, which owns the Denver Post, it’s Alden Global Capital.

The hedge funds have closed in because as bad as things are for most chains, they are still generating lots of revenue. Cash is the lifeblood of the hedge funds, and what they’re doing, generally, is looking to bleed the newspapers of revenue and reinvest it in other, more profitable ventures. For example, The Columbia Journalism Review reported that a group of Alden shareholders filed suit last year alleging that Alden “had sucked money out of the newspapers it owns in order to make risky investments in Greek sovereign debt and a troubled pharmaceutical chain, among other areas.”

The hedge funds’ strategy has a euphemistic name, “harvesting market position,” but what it really amounts to is gutting an industry with a failing pulse.

**

Unfortunately, I don’t see any promising outcome on the horizon for McClatchy and The Star. McClatchy is not going to sell The Star, probably its most profitable paper, so The Star is probably going to be owned by another chain within a year or two.

The worst possible outcome would be that it ends up in the hands of MNG, that is, Alden Global Capital. Before GateHouse came along, Alden made a run at Gannett, but Gannett was strong enough to fight off the hostile takeover bid. Alden probably would be less deterred by McClatchy’s $745 million debt than some of the other chains because Alden is more interested in what’s coming than what is owed.

Among other papers, MNG — Alden — owns the Denver Post, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Detroit News.

Here’s what it looked like last year at The Denver Post after 30 newsroom layoffs were announced…

You KC Star editorial employees who are reading this blog, take a good look at this image. I truly hope a scene like this doesn’t materialize in Kansas City, but if Alden should get its hands on McClatchy, there could be lots of tears on the keyboards.

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Until about the fifth grade, I was a bully. I would punch classmates if they did something that irritated me, like one kid, Wally Clifford, who peed on a ruler and wiped it on my shirt in the boys’ restroom.

I tagged him with a roundhouse right, and I’ll never forget the shocked look on his face, even as he maintained a goofy, frozen smile.

But then one day on the playground I got into it with a heavyset kid named Russell Armstrong, and Russell put me in my place — and kept me there — by sitting on my chest. I realized then that I was not invulnerable, and it dawned on me that I’d better retire from fisticuffs before I took a really good beating.

I lost one more schoolyard fight before I quit altogether and became an inveterate coward.

Later, in all the years I spent in the bars as a bachelor — didn’t get married ’til I was a week shy of 39 — I can’t ever recall being in a bar when a big fight broke out. I saw a couple of guys get kicked out of bars for minor stuff, but I never saw any confrontation that I suspected would lead to somebody returning and trying to take revenge. At the same time, I was always vigilant about what was going on around me and tried to be attuned to any signs of barroom trouble.

Now you know where I’m going with this personal history…I’m pretty sure that even back in my single days, I would have left a bar immediately if I had witnessed a confrontation that resulted in someone threatening to return while getting thrown out.

And while it’s implausible that I would have been in Tequila KC on Central Avenue last Saturday night, if I had been…if I had been, I would have been gone in 10 seconds after seeing a guy throw cups and bottles at a bartender and hearing him threaten to return as he was escorted out.

(Moreover, if I had been in any bar where a guy looking as menacing as Hugo Villanueva-Morales does in his mug shot, I think that would have been enough to send me running for the door.)

I also would have been gone the afternoon or evening of Feb. 22, 2017, after Adam Purinton was kicked out of Austin’s Bar & Grill in Olathe after yelling racial slurs at Srinivas Kuchibhotla and Alok Madasani. Purinton came back with a gun later and killed Kuchibhotla and wounded Madasani and a man who had come to their aid.

I’m not saying I would have left those bars because I was smarter than those who didn’t leave; I just have a finely honed sense of self-preservation. Some might call it paranoia, but whatever it is, it has served me pretty well. So far, anyway.

I seldom go to bars any more. Oddly, though, after the symphony last Friday night, we went to the bar at Grunauer’s restaurant in the Freight House area. We had eaten dinner there with several other people before the performance and had left a car in the lot. We weren’t quite ready to wrap up the night when we got back to Grunauer, so we popped in there for a while.

It was distractingly loud because of blaring, teeth gratingly bad music, but it was safe — a lot safer than it was about 24 hours later across the state line at 10th and Central.

 

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Nathan Pena and his parents, Chris and John, the last several days.

I didn’t know Nathan and don’t know his parents. Nathan, 19, was a resident of Brookfield, Illinois, a western Chicago suburb. He worked at a Best Buy, ran cross country in high school, had a sister named Lauren and a cat named Cheech.

Last week he was driving to Boulder, Colorado, to visit a friend, and on the way through Kansas City he got caught up, indirectly, in a Kansas Highway Patrol chase of a KCK man with some kind of car registration violation.

Near the Kansas Turnpike Authority Terminal in Leavenworth County, the KCK man, 29-year-old Anthony Dorsey, turned around and began speeding away from his pursuers, going eastbound in the westbound lanes.

Pena had seen Dorsey’s vehicle make a U turn, and he saw the other vehicle coming toward his. He took evasive action, whipping the steering wheel to the right, toward the right shoulder and a grassy incline.

Nathan Pena

Dorsey also took evasive action, but, maddeningly, he turned the same way. His significantly larger vehicle struck Pena’s vehicle nearly head on. As usual in these kinds of cases, the slower-traveling vehicle — Pena’s — took the brunt of the crash, and Pena, who was wearing a seat belt, was killed. Dorsey — the speeding killer — was not seriously injured.

The story didn’t get a lot of play in the news columns of The Star. Thankfully, The Star came out with an editorial questioning the Highway Patrol’s decision to take up a high-speed chase over the matter of a registration violation. The editorial said, “As a general matter…concerns with a car’s registration are not sufficient reason to risk the lives of others.”

I’ll say…We hear about far too many of these cases where law enforcement officers give chase for relatively minor offenses and then the driver trying to get away ends up crashing into and killing one or more innocent people.

It’s ridiculous. The Star pointed out that the highway patrol has a good policy: It requires the responding officer to undertake a pursuit only if he or she believes the risk to the public is lower than the immediate danger from the suspect remaining at large.

At that point in the editorial, The Star editorial writer lost his or  her nerve, saying, “It isn’t clear if that standard was met in this case.”

Well, I can tell you with finality — and you know it as well — the standard was definitely NOT met. No vehicle registration issue could possibly warrant a high-speed chase endangering innocent people…Now, if the runaway driver pulls out a shotgun and fires at the patrol officer, that’s a different story. But to get involved in a high-speed chase over nothing more than improper or expired registration…No way. No way!

This is heart-breaking. Nathan Pena. Nineteen. His whole life ahead of him. Couldn’t have been more than a year out of high school.

Nathan Pena was in the red vehicle.

At this writing, 40 people have posted condolence messages on the website of Hitzeman Funeral Home in Brookfield. One message, from Debby Donovan, says: “I am so terribly sorry for your loss in this tragedy. I know John and Chris (patents) and can’t believe you are going through this. My deep sympathy for the entire family and friends.”

On another website, a woman named DeAnna Scofield of Oklahoma wrote…

“I passed this accident on the east(bound) side while on a trip to Des Moines and my heart sunk seeing the wreckage. It stuck with me so much that I searched for the details today on my way home/passing the scene again. Reading about Nathan absolutely shook me to my core, as I also have a 19 yr old son who road trips to Colorado frequently. I am so sorry for your loss…I cannot even fathom the pain. I will be keeping your family in my thoughts. Such an unnecessary tragedy.”

**

As in many such cases, the driver’s life is also probably ruined. Dorsey, who is charged with first-degree, felony murder, will surely end up doing 20 or 30 years in prison. All over a stupid vehicle-registration issue.

My God, why don’t law enforcement agencies come to their senses and clamp down on these ridiculous chases over inconsequential violations? The cowboy mindset has got to go.

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I wrote Tuesday how three of the biggest names in golf — Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and TV commentator David Feherty, managed to get into town last month, play a couple of benefit rounds at the Kansas City Country Club and get out of town without anyone in the media finding out about it for more than a week.

Nicklaus, Trevino and local golfing hero Tom Watson played with a dozen people who teed up $100,000 each for a Watson foundation that supports The First Tee organization, which promotes golf among youths. (I’m told Feherty, who has his own show on the Golf Channel, might not have played and was along for his considerable entertainment value.)

Not only was I mightily irked that the media was caught with its balls in the clubhouse, I wanted to know who the people were that forked over $100,000 each to play.

Well, I’ve found out who three of the big hitters were.

I’m not free to divulge my sources, but let’s just say my barber, who’s been clipping and listening for 60 years, is a font of knowledge.

I can’t claim this as a full, 100 percent scoop, but let’s call it a “one-quarter” scoop. (My first editor told me to never make the reader do the math, so…three over 12 is 25 percent.)

The wealthy swingers…

Don Wagner is a private investor who made millions in the steel tank industry. He has served on various civic and community boards, including having been chairman of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City. He has been a trustee for the University of Missouri-Kansas City and was appointed to the Kansas City Board of Police Commissioners two years ago by then-Gov. Eric Greitens. (I believe he lives in KCMO.)

 

Alan Atterbury co-founded Midland Loan Services, a national real estate financial loan services firm based in Overland Park. It is now owned by PNC Financial Services of Pittsburg, PA. Before starting Midland, Atterbury was a partner in the law firm Morrison & Hecker. He has served on many boards, including the Harry S. Truman Library Institute, Midwest Research Institute and the UMKC Board of Trustees. (He may live in Naples, FL, now.)

 

Tom Devlin co-founded Rent-A-Center, the country’s largest rent-to-own chain, in 1973, when he was 25. The company was sold to a larger company in 1987 for $584 million. As recently as 2014, Devlin headed an investment holding company. (Devlin lives in or near Wichita, where Rent-A-Center was founded. It is now based in Plano, TX.)

**

I wanted to note the passing of Jack Campbell, a lawyer, civic activist and personal acquaintance since my early days in Kansas City.

I didn’t know a soul here when I arrived in September 1969, but in short order I caught on with — and moved in with — a group of fairly recent MU graduates. Five of us lived in a rental house at 58th and McGee. Not far away, on 50th Street between Main and Wornall, lived several other friends and MU graduates, including the late R.J. Roper Jr., who was in the beer distributing business, and lawyers Jim Bowers and Jack Campbell.

Jack was a serious-minded but lighthearted fellow, and unlike most of the rest of us he had a girlfriend, Marsha Mulford. As a result, he seldom was out with the rest of us, who often drank late into the night and battled hangovers the next day.

Not only did Jack forge an excellent legal career, he served several years as a state representative from the Brookside area. After he left office, his wife, Marsha Campbell (nee Mulford), was elected to the State House and served several terms. (Do any of you remember her ingenious yard signs, which mimicked the Campbell’s Soup label?)

One of my outstanding memories of Jack was crossing paths with him one day when I was covering the Jackson County Courthouse (1971 to 1978). I was walking to my car in the courthouse parking lot, when Jack looked at my car — a white, 1959 Pontiac I had driven from Louisville — and said, “What’s a man of your station doing driving a beat-up old car like that? You need to get a new car!”

He was smiling, but he was serious. Shortly after that encounter, I went to Art Bunker Volkswagen on Wornall and bought a new, 1971 VW Super Beetle.

Jack died Sunday at Research Medical Center. He was 73 — and a damn good man. Even though I rarely saw him in recent years, I, along with countless others he touched over the decades, will miss him.

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