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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

LouisianaVoice has obtained a copy of Secretary of State Tom Schedler’s letter to Susan West, CEO of the Louisiana Office of Group Benefits (OGB) in which he threatened to initiate legal action to prevent the destruction of documents by OGB.

OGB, meanwhile, says it has “ceased destruction” of all records subsequent to the Sept. 3 receipt of Schedler’s letter.

Schedler took the action after he learned that some original claim records “may have been destroyed” by OGB without following proper established procedures for doing so.

LouisianaVoice has learned that Liz Murrill, formerly the executive counsel for the Division of Administration which has jurisdiction over OGB, was terminated after she refused to sign off on the order for the records destruction.

Schedler’s letter of Oct. 17 also accused OGB of failing to provide a status and location of original claim records subject to his request of Sept. 30. He said the agency was required to provide a written response by Oct. 6, but failed to do so.

That would be consistent with DOA’s practice of delay, delay, delay and sometimes deny in response to requests for public records. LouisianaVoice has made frequent requests for records only to see compliance by DOA occur at a snail’s pace, if at all. The standard response to such requests is that DOA is searching for the records and will review them for “exemptions and privileges.” Here is a typical response to one of our requests—made on Sept. 30, 2014:

From: DOAPUBLICRECORDS [mailto:DOAPUBLICRECORDS] Sent: Tuesday, October 28, 2014 11:36 AM To: ‘azspeak@cox.net’ Subject: Public Records Request re OGB

Pursuant to your public records request, we are still searching for records and/or reviewing them for exemptions and privileges. Once finished with the review process, all non-exempt records will be made available to you.

That’s a full month, as of today, and still no records.

“The Office of Group Benefits operates under a binding retention schedule that requires all health claims to be kept for the life of the agency and to be imaged upon arrival,” Schedler’s letter says. “The schedule also provides that, after three years, original claim records may be microfilmed and shredded—but the records may only be shredded after receiving written approval from Carrie Fager Martin, the Records Management Officer Statewide.

Schedler said he “has reason to believe” that some records may have been destroyed “without prior approval and in direct violation” of Louisiana statutes and OGB’s own retention schedule. “When actual, impending, or threatened destruction of records comes to the attention of the Secretary of State’s Office, I am bound by law to initiate action through the attorney general to protect or recover the affected records, or to pursue any other redress provided by law,” he wrote.

“Please be advised that your failure to respond to my Sept. 30 inquiry on the status of original claim records now requires me to inform the attorney general of their potential destruction and (to) initiate action through his office to protect any records that may have been destroyed in violation of OGB’s retention schedule.”

Bill Guerra, Interim Chief Operating Officer for OGB, responded to Schedler’s letter, also on Oct. 17, saying, “We are in compliance with your request. We have ceased destruction of original claims records effective upon the Sept. 3 receipt of your Aug. 28 correspondence.

Guerra said and further questions should be directed to either him or West.

Click here to see both letters:

DOCUMENT LETTERS

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State Rep. Jim Fannin (D/R-Jonesboro) may have inadvertently exposed the Jindal administration’s $178 million “surplus” for the fraud it is in a brief conversation with one of our readers from north Louisiana who knew the right questions to ask, LouisianaVoice has learned.

Fannin, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, delivered a “State of the State” address at the Fall Meeting of the Louisiana Retired Teachers Association in Baton Rouge on Monday and afterwards was confronted by retired teacher Kay Riser Prince of Ruston.

Rubbing her forefinger and thumb together, Riser asked Fannin, “Is Jindal’s new-found money real—that is, can the light bill be paid with it, or is all on paper?”

“I don’t know,” answered Fannin initially before he finally said it is money that was assigned to various agencies but not spent.

“When I taught at (Louisiana) Tech,” Riser responded, “we were told that if we did not spend money that had been allocated by June 30, it went back to the state.”

Fannin then admitted to Prince that was where Jindal’s “discovery” of some $320 million originated.

Prince was able to obtain an answer to a question no one else has been able to get—probably because Fannin was sent a list of funds Jindal had supposedly “swept” from some 17 agencies to arrive at his bogus surplus and when asked point blank, he acknowledged that the surplus was, at best an illusion, an accounting sleight of hand.

So now it would appear that the surplus so proudly proclaimed by Jindal is not cash after all, but an accounting entry and any available cash at the time of the under-budget expenditures (reportedly dating all the way back to 1997) has long since reverted back into the General Fund and has been spent.

In fact, if the state kept books like a business, this shell game might well have affected the retained earnings of owners’ equity and may have even resulted in Enron-like indictments.

In standard business practice, such funds would have been included as a carry-forward asset but never as revenue leading to a subsequent accounting period budget surplus. You can ask Enron’s now defunct accounting firm, Arthur Andersen, about that.

But Gov. Bobby Jindal and Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols have each seen their shadows and have retreated back into the fantasy world in which they now reside—but not before Nichols fired off a broadside at State Treasurer John Kennedy for not knowing of the existence of a nonexistent bucket of cash lying around for all these years—and they’re not scheduled to emerge until the Legislative Auditor’s report sometime in late December.

By that time, of course, Jindal will be in Iowa or traipsing around in the snows of New Hampshire in search of caucus and primary votes he hopes will catapult him into semi-serious contention for the Republican presidential nomination—an exercise our crystal ball tells us will give him the distinction of having less a chance at the nomination—or even of being picked for VP— than Alf Landon had of beating FDR in 1936 or of Barry Goldwater upsetting LBJ in ’64. Meanwhile, the looming legislative session will be but a mere distraction, and Louisiana’s financial troubles will start to become a fading bad dream for him and a mess to be sorted out by his successor.

 

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Our October fund raiser enters its final five days and we still need assistance to help us offset the cost of pursuing legal action against an administration that prefers to conduct its business behind closed doors and out of sight of the people to whom they are supposed to answer.

We also are launching an ambitious project that will involve considerable time and expense. If Gov. Bobby Jindal does seek higher office as it becomes more and more apparent that he will, the people of America need to know the real story of what he has done to our state and its people. Voters in the other 49 states need to know not Jindal’s version of his accomplishments as governor, but the truth about:

  • What has occurred with CNSI and Bruce Greenstein;
  • How Jindal squandered the Office of Group Benefits $500 million reserve fund;
  • The lies the administration told us two years ago about how state employee benefits would not be affected by privatization;
  • The lies about how Buck Consultants advised the administration to cut health care premiums when the company’s July report said just the opposite;
  • How Jindal attempted unsuccessfully to gut state employee retirement benefits;
  • How Jindal attempted to sneak a significant retirement benefit into law for the Superintendent of State Police;
  • How Jindal appointees throughout state government have abused the power entrusted to them;
  • How Jindal has attempted a giveaway plan for state hospitals that has yet to be approved by the federal Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS);
  • How regulations have been skirted so that Jindal could reward supporters with favorable purchases and contracts;
  • How Jindal fired employees and demoted legislators for the simple transgression of disagreeing with him;
  • How Jindal has refused Medicaid expansion that has cost hundreds of thousands of Louisiana’s poor the opportunity to obtain medical care;
  • How Jindal has gutted appropriations to higher education in Louisiana, forcing tuition increases detrimental to students;
  • How Jindal has attempted to systematically destroy public education in Louisiana;
  • How Jindal has refused federal grants that could have gone far in developing internet services for rural areas and high speed rail service between Baton Rouge and New Orleans;
  • How Jindal has rewarded major contributors with appointments to key boards and commissions;
  • How Jindal attempted to use the court system to persecute an agency head who refused to knuckle under to illegal demands from the governor’s office;
  • How Jindal has manipulated the state budget each year he has been in office in a desperate effort to smooth over deficit after deficit;
  • And most of all, how Jindal literally abandoned the state while still governor so that he could pursue his quixotic dream of becoming president.

To this end, LouisianaVoice Editor Tom Aswell will be spending the next several months researching and writing a book chronicling the Jindal administration. Should Jindal become a presidential contender or even if he is selected as another candidate’s vice presidential running mate, such a book could have a national impact and even affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

This project is going to take time and involve considerable expense as we compile our research and prepare the book for publication in time for the 2016 election.

To accomplish this, we need your help.

If you are not seeing the “Donate” button, it may be because you are receiving our posts via email subscription. To contribute by credit card, please click on this link to go to our actual web page and look for the yellow Donate button: http://louisianavoice.com/

If you prefer not to conduct an internet transaction, you may mail a check to:

Capital News Service/LouisianaVoice

P.O. Box 922

Denham Springs, Louisiana 70727-0922

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“Judge Free’s actions have harmed the integrity of and respect for the judiciary.”

—Report of the Louisiana Judiciary Commission on 18th Judicial District Court Judge Robin Free, who accepted a free flight on the private jet of a plaintiff attorney who had just won a $1.2 million settlement of a personal injury case presided over by Free. The seriousness of Free’s breach of ethics notwithstanding, the judicial commission recommended only a 30-day suspension.

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Did you ever have one of those what were you thinking moments?

We’re talking about when you do something that in hindsight simply defies all logic. You’ve seen them in stupid criminal emails and on videos.

Whenever we watch the local newscast and see a report of some incredibly stupid criminal action in which the perpetrator had to have known things wouldn’t end well, we find ourselves wishing we just sit across the table from him, just us, and ask him, “What were you thinking? How did you think this turn out?”

Usually, it’s some petty thief or someone from an uneducated background whose rash judgment overrides his ability to think things through to the obvious conclusion of terrible consequences.

Someone like the hapless bank robber in one Baton Rouge-area city several years who slipped a “This is a robbery” note in the drawer at a bank drive-through window—a bullet-proof window, no less. The teller read the note, turned it over and wrote, “I don’t see a gun” and sent the note back to the nervous driver who promptly placed his gun in the drawer and sent it in to the teller. What was he thinking?

But you wouldn’t normally associate such transgressions with a high profile individual like a district judge who took an oath to uphold the law and to protect the citizenry from the lawless, a judge who no doubt pledged to “be tough on crime” when he was running for office. Nor would you think the question would apply to the state Judiciary Commission which meted out a recommendation for a 30-day suspension for the errant judge, a mere slap on the wrist for a serious breach of judicial ethics that might well have deserved a permanent suspension.

Judge Robin Free of West Baton Rouge Parish is guilty of one of the most blatant what were you thinking? flaunting of ethics and he compounded his sin when he attempted to minimize the severity of his actions by claiming he was unfamiliar with the judicial canons governing such behavior.

And it wasn’t even Free’s first offense, which should have provoked the commission’s fury at his arrogance.

Here’s what happened. Free presided over the trial of a class action lawsuit in which a): his mother was a potential plaintiff and b): he accepted a free flight to a south Texas hunting camp—on the private jet of a plaintiff attorney only days after that attorney had won a $1.2 million settlement in Free’s court in another case.

What was he thinking? Most likely that he wouldn’t get caught.

The flight to the Casa Bonita Ranch in Goliad County south of Corpus Christi was made at the suggestion of Assistant District Attorney Tony Clayton who regularly appears in matters before Free. Both men represent the 18th Judicial District, which includes West Baton Rouge Parish. Clayton supposedly was interested in purchasing the property but ultimately did not.

But here’s the rub: The ranch is owned by Texas attorney David Rumley who, it turned out, was working with Clayton on the personal injury case and judiciary commission determined the invitation came “at or near the time of settlement negotiations” in the case.

Free described the trip as “just some friends going to look at some property together and boiling crawfish and hanging out,” according to the Baton Rouge Advocate. http://theadvocate.com/news/10518947-123/judiciary-commission-recommends-30-day-suspension

Free, in an incredulous admission, said there were “a lot of things I was not aware of in the canons.”

It’s something of a stretch for someone who has probably told a defendant or two that ignorance of the law is no excuse to attempt to plead ignorance, especially for a man who has been on the bench for 17 years—since 1997—and who has had previous dust-ups with the judiciary commission.

In 1998, only a year after taking office, Free was “cautioned” by the judiciary commission after an earlier hunting lodge relationship that resulted in accusations of a biased decision. And in 2001, Free signed what is known as a deferred recommendation of discipline agreement with the commission following his failure to recuse himself from a case in which he had previously served as the prosecutor of a defendant.

Then in 2005, he again came under criticism and was given a warning by the commission to avoid appointments which might create the appearance of impropriety after he named a political ally ex parte as a temporary liquidator in a case.

In the class action case involving Free’s mother, his attorney, Steven Scheckman, called it a misunderstanding and said his client was a “fall guy” for a mapping error that had gone unnoticed in the class action for two years.

But the special counsel for the judiciary commission said an attorney for Dow Chemical, a defendant in the matter, had informed Free of the conflict in a letter to the judge. Instead of calling a status conference involving all the parties, however, Free instead improperly called the attorney’s law partner to complain—yet another breach of judicial canons.

Scheckman said Free had not known the boundaries in the class action had been changed by a prior judgment to include his mother’s address even though it was Free who signed the judgment, all of which prompted Baton Rouge Advocate columnist James Gill to observe that Scheckman’s protestations of ignorance on the part of his client were “unlikely to wash.”

http://theadvocate.com/news/acadiana/10544318-123/james-gill-free-ride-in

Called before the Judiciary Commission, Free took a strategy that has become all too familiar whenever any high profile individual, be it an elected official or professional athlete: he publically apologized for his bad judgment.

But a judge should not be making bad judgments. And these contrite admissions, coming as they always do after the sinner is caught, are becoming a little thin and time worn—and void of any real substance.

As Gill pointed out, the opinion put forth by the Judiciary Commission that Free should have known better because of his seniority on the bench is laughable. “The sleaze here is so obvious that no judicial experience whatsoever is required to recognize it,” he wrote.

But Gill did not limit the sleaze factor to Free; he also took the Supreme Court and the Judicial Commission to task, criticizing them for the practice of keeping judicial disciplinary matters secret until the ethics violations become so blatant as to demand public airing.

He said the Office of the Special Council recommended to the Judiciary Commission that Free be suspended for a full year but the commission reduced its recommendation to 30 days, a sentence Gill called “derisory.”

Saying Free might not have been re-elected unopposed in his last run for office had his ethical lapses been known to the public, Gill added that “Litigants have no way of knowing how many more Judge Freerides are out there” and that if Free really did not understand what he had done wrong, he is “too stupid to be a judge.”

We can certainly concur in that evaluation and for our part, we’re still waiting for a politician to apologize for some wrongdoing before he is caught. That would be a public official we could trust.

 

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Never let it be said that LouisianaVoice isn’t willing to save the state a little money.

Remember that survey of Division of Administration (DOA) employees that revealed severe morale problems throughout state government? Well, in case you don’t, here’s the link to our story on that survey: http://louisianavoice.com/2014/10/02/employee-survey-of-doa-employees-reveals-simmering-morale-problem-no-one-more-popular-than-jindal-in-poll/

It turns out the state shelled out $25,000 to IBM for that survey that showed employees simply are not happy with the administration, scoring it abysmally low in trust, employee recognition, senior leadership values, communication from management, senior leadership vision, opportunity for advancement, employee involvement in decision making, and prospects for positive change.

Basically, the survey showed that state leadership languishes far below the national norm. In a word, it sucks.

But $25,000 to learn that? We could have told the administration that for…oh say, $5.

So who authorized the expenditure of scarce state funds for such a worthless piece of research when the conclusions were long evident to state employees and certainly should have been to the administration?

Well, it turns out that Deputy Commissioner of Administration Ruth Johnson signed off on the contract with IBM on June 24.

Johnson, you might recall, retired on June 21, 2012, from her $130,000 per year job as head of the Department of Children and Family services. She moved out of state but returned on May 27, 2013, as Director of Accountability and Research for DOA at $150,000 and less than four months later, on Sept. 30, 2013, was promoted to Assistant Commissioner at $170,000 per year. As if that were not enough, on Feb. 24 of this year, she was again promoted to the title of Director in the governor’s office at $180,000. Bottom line: in just 16 months, she retired and returned, netting in the process a pay increase of $50,000 per year—more than the average state employee makes in a year.

That will do wonders for employee morale.

LouisianaVoice made a public records request on Oct. 3 for the request for proposals (RFP), the contract and payment history for the survey contract with IBM.

On Oct. 6, DOA responded to our request:

  • Your public records request, dated October 3, 2014, was received by the Division of Administration. We are conducting a search for records.  Once the search is finished, the records will be reviewed for privileges and exemptions.  We will contact you as soon as the review is completed.

Three weeks later, on Oct. 24, DOA finally complied with a six-page document. Apparently, there was no RFP for a vendor—just a sketchy six-page document and even more significant, there were no redactions, no privileges or exemptions. There was only a delay of three full weeks—14 working days—in complying with our request.

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:1 says:

  • All books, records, writings, accounts, letters and letter books, maps, drawings, photographs, cards, tapes, recordings, memoranda, and papers, and all copies, duplicates, photographs, including microfilm, or other reproductions thereof, or any other documentary materials, regardless of physical form or characteristics, including information contained in electronic data processing equipment, having been used, being in use, or prepared, possessed, or retained for use in the conduct, transaction, or performance of any business, transaction, work, duty, or function which was conducted, transacted, or performed by or under the authority of the constitution or laws of this state, or by or under the authority of any ordinance, regulation, mandate, or order of any public body or concerning the receipt or payment of any money received or paid by or under the authority of the constitution or the laws of this state, are “public records.”

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:33 says:

  • If the public record applied for is immediately available, because of its not being in active use at the time of the application, the public record shall be immediately presented to the authorized person applying for it.  If the public record applied for is not immediately available, because of its being in active use at the time of the application, the custodian shall promptly certify this in writing to the applicant, and in his certificate shall fix a day and hour within three days, exclusive of Saturdays, Sundays, and legal public holidays, for the exercise of the right granted by this Chapter.

Louisiana Revised Statute 44:37 says:

  • Any person having custody or control of a public record, who violates any of the provisions of this Chapter, or any person not having such custody or control who by any conspiracy, understanding or cooperation with any other person hinders or attempts to hinder the inspection of any public records declared by this Chapter to be subject to inspection, shall upon first conviction be fined not less than one hundred dollars, and not more than one thousand dollars, or shall be imprisoned for not less than one month, nor more than six months.  Upon any subsequent conviction he shall be fined not less than two hundred fifty dollars, and not more than two thousand dollars, or imprisoned for not less than two months, nor more than six months, or both.

Meanwhile, LouisianaVoice has learned that DOA has launched an intensive witch hunt for our source on the employee satisfaction survey, which apparently was supposed to be a closely-guarded state secret. And while we really hate to even let them know this and spoil the fun, the funniest thing is they are so far off base in their search. They don’t have the foggiest idea that our sources are not even in a single building; they’re scattered throughout state government because apparently state employees place more trust in what we write than what the administration says.

So guys, have fun in your search because every time you think you’ve found one, three more pop up. You can’t stop the truth. Hell, you can’t even slow it down.

Given the results of the survey, it’s easy to understand why DOA wanted to keep the survey from public view. What’s not so easy to comprehend is why the Jindal administration is so hell-bent on keeping everything it does from public scrutiny.

We will make this observation, however: When an administration goes to such great lengths to shield its actions from public view and when that same administration expends an inordinate amount of time and effort in attempting to determine the source of leaks of such benign, non-sensitive information as a simple employee survey, one can only deduce that administration has far more to hide than a simple satisfaction survey.

And paranoia, it seems, feeds upon itself.

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As if the administration’s handling of bogus criminal accusations against former Commissioner of the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control Murphy Painter wasn’t already embarrassing enough after Painter’s acquittal ended up costing the state $474,000 in reimbursement of his legal fees and expenses, a recent civil court decision has added insult to injury.

Bobby Jindal (R-Iowa/New Hampshire/Florida/Anywhere but Louisiana) thought he could make an example of Painter over the then-ATC commissioner’s refusal to bend the rules for New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, whose family and businesses have poured some $40,000 into various Jindal political campaigns.

Painter twice rejected applications by SMG (formerly Spectacor Management Group), the Mercedes-Benz Superdome management firm, for a permit to erect a large tent at Benson’s Champions Square adjacent to Benson Towers across from the Superdome. The tent was to house beer sales by Anheuser-Busch distributor Southern Eagle and approval of the permit was sought by Southern Eagle, SMG, the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED) board and a law firm representing SMG. Altogether, the Benson family, LSED board members, SMG, its law firm and Southern Eagle had combined to pour more than $203,000 into Jindal campaigns between 2003 and 2012.

When Jindal executive counsel Stephen Waguespack insisted that the permit be expedited, Painter asked that he put his concerns in writing but Waguespack refused.

Not only did Jindal fire Painter when his commissioner insisted that the permit application for the Champions Square tent be complete and proper, he even had Painter indicted on criminal charges of stalking a female employee. Present at the firing ceremony were Waguespack, State Police Superintendent Mike Edmonson, and another member of the governor’s legal staff.

The subsequent criminal prosecution of Painter fell apart and his acquittal carried a stipulation that the state pick up the tab for Painter’s legal fees and affiliated costs.

Now, a civil trial jury has determined unanimously that the female former employee, Kelli Suire, defamed Painter even though the Louisiana Office of Risk Management, most likely at the insistence of Jindal’s Division of Administration, settled Suire’s claims against the state in 2011 without Suire’s ever having been required to sit for a sworn deposition in the apparent hope the settlement would bolster the state’s case against Painter.

Oops.

Painter’s defamation suit against Suire was bifurcated, meaning it was to be tried in two parts. The first part, the part just completed, was to settle the question of actual liability. Had Suire been found not guilty of defamation, the second part to determine actual monetary damages would have been unnecessary.

Unfortunately for Jindal’s chances to avoid further embarrassment over the sloppy manner in which the Painter matter was handled, such was not the case and the damages part will be tried next.

Throughout the entire matter, Painter has made clear that he wanted his day in court.

The liability trial was heard in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana before Judge Shelly Dick and a seven-person jury. Following a three-day trial, the jury took about three hours.

Painter was represented at trial by attorney Al Robert, Jr., and Suire by Jill Craft.

The issues in the case first arose on Aug. 16, 2010, soon after Suire filed a complaint with the Louisiana Office of Inspector General (OID) alleging a myriad of allegations against Painter. The lead OIG investigator at the time, Shane Evans, now employed by the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office, testified that he met with Suire and that he personally chose to use the words “stalking” and “harassing” to describe the nature of Suire’s complaints in his application for a search warrant.

Painter also has a civil lawsuit pending against OIG which alleges the agency’s investigation, which began in August of 2010, was improperly conducted.

Robert said the jury’s verdict confirmed the finding of an outside investigator hired by the Louisiana Department of Revenue (DOR) under which ATC operates. The investigator determined that Painter’s actions did not violate DOR anti-harassment policy. Moreover, when questioned by the DOR investigator, Robert said, Suire “admitted that Painter did not make unwelcome sexual advances toward her and that he did not request sexual favors or engage in verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature toward her. Inexplicably, the Office of Inspector General ignored this investigation when it chose to move forward with its investigation of Mr. Painter,” he added.

“This has been a long, four-year ordeal to clear my name of the lies and untruths that Ms. Suire—and those working with her—used to damage my character and reputation,” Painter said.

In her instructions to the jury, Judge Dick said defamation requires proof of a false or defamatory statement made to a third person or persons. “A person who utters a defamatory statement is responsible for all republication that is the natural and probable consequence of the person’s statement,” she said.

Suire, in her defense, did not deny making the statements but said rather that her statements were subject to “privilege,” or inadmissible, Judge Dick said, acknowledging that Suire’s communications did in fact “occasion a conditional or qualified privilege.”

Therefore, in order for Painter to prevail, she said, he “must prove that (the) defendant abused this privilege by acting with actual malice.” Such a finding, the judge said, would require that Suire either knew the matter to be false or acted in reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity.

Suire currently resides in Florida.

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