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History > 2016 > USA > Justice (I)




Dennis Hastert

Sentenced to 15 Months,

and Apologizes for Sex Abuse


APRIL 27, 2016

The New York Times





CHICAGO — J. Dennis Hastert, once among this nation’s most powerful politicians, was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Wednesday for illegally structuring bank transactions in an effort to cover up his sexual abuse of young members of a wrestling team he coached decades ago.

Mr. Hastert, 74, who made an unlikely rise from beloved small-town wrestling coach in Illinois to speaker of the House in Washington, sat in a wheelchair in a federal courtroom here as a judge announced his fate.

“The defendant is a serial child molester,” said Judge Thomas M. Durkin of Federal District Court in a tough rebuke of the former speaker before issuing his sentence. The judge added, “Nothing is more stunning than having ‘serial child molester’ and ‘speaker of the House’ in the same sentence.”

Judge Durkin pointed out the vulnerability of Mr. Hastert’s young victims, and said they had been damaged for years. “If there’s a public shaming of the defendant because of the conduct he’s engaged in, so be it,” he said.

Mr. Hastert has suffered a series of ailments in recent months including a stroke, a blood stream infection and a spinal infection. “There are no guarantees that the defendant won’t get sicker in prison,” the judge said. “There are no guarantees that he won’t get sicker at home.”

He said he would recommend that Mr. Hastert be sent to a prison hospital. “This is not meant to be a death sentence,” he said.

The felony count to which Mr. Hastert pleaded guilty carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. His lawyers had sought probation, and as part of a plea deal, prosecutors had said they would support a sentence of six months or less. The judge also imposed a $250,000 fine.

The sentence followed Mr. Hastert’s admission that he had molested members of his wrestling team, and his apology for the harm that he caused them. “The thing I want to do today is say I’m sorry,” Mr. Hastert said.

That followed the tearful statement by one of his victims, who described being sexually abused as he lay on a locker room training table decades ago.

“As a high school wrestler I looked up to Coach Hastert — he was a key figure in my life,” said the victim, Scott Cross, now a 53-year-old businessman in Chicago. Stopping once to compose himself, he said, “I felt intense pain, shame and guilt.”

Mr. Cross said that he had gone years without speaking of what had happened, and that the experience had caused him lifelong trauma. “I’ve always felt that what Coach Hastert had done to me was my darkest secret,” he said, as Mr. Hastert looked on.

Mr. Cross, is the brother of a former Illinois House Republican leader, Tom Cross. Judge Durkin is the brother of another prominent Republican lawmaker in Illinois, Jim Durkin.

Mr. Hastert’s fall from genial retired House speaker and hometown celebrity on the far edge of Chicago’s western suburbs was sudden and steep.

For decades, both in Washington and in Yorkville, where Mr. Hastert had coached the local high school wrestling team to state championship, he had a reputation for appearing down-to-earth and steady — with little hint of scandal.

Mr. Hastert, who was first elected to Congress in 1986, found himself catapulted to speaker in 1999, in part, because he seemed to be a safe, agreeable option: The Republicans’ first choice, Robert L. Livingston of Louisiana, stepped away from the post even before he took it, acknowledging adulterous affairs in his past.

Mr. Hastert grew up delivering feed for his family’s farm supply business, and held onto his plain-speaking style long after he left teaching and coaching for a life in the state legislature in Illinois and then in Washington, before he became a high-paid lobbyist. “I’ve always thought of myself as a kid from the cornfields,” Mr. Hastert wrote in his 2004 memoir, “Speaker: Lessons from Forty Years in Coaching and Politics.”

Mr. Hastert never appeared to shy away from the wrestling world he had built in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s as a coach at Yorkville High School, continuing to advocate for the sport in Congress and to hire former student wrestlers as his aides and advisers.

Yet it was a former student wrestler, prosecutors say, who eventually would lead to Mr. Hastert’s downfall after a series of revelations that left many — even Mr. Hastert’s onetime assistant wrestling coach — stunned. Some wondered how the abuse could be kept secret in such a small town for so long.

Mr. Hastert was charged in May with lying to the F.B.I. and making cash withdrawals in a way designed to hide the fact that he was paying $3.5 million to a former wrestler for misconduct from years earlier. The former wrestler and family friend of Mr. Hastert, identified in documents as Individual A, told of abuse in a motel room during a wrestling camp trip when he was 14.

Prosecutors said Individual A approached Mr. Hastert to talk about the incident years later, in about 2010, asking Mr. Hastert whether there had been other victims and whether he would pay Individual A for what he had done.

After the payments began, federal authorities took notice of large, unexplained withdrawals Mr. Hastert was making from his bank. When told that large withdrawals had to be reported, Mr. Hastert began drawing smaller sums, prosecutors say, to avoid notice.

Federal investigators approached Mr. Hastert in late 2014, inquiring about the many withdrawals — he had paid Individual A some $1.7 million by then — and Mr. Hastert said he simply did not trust banks and was keeping the money in a safe place. Not long after, Mr. Hastert’s lawyer contacted officials with a different story, prosecutors say: Mr. Hastert was the victim of extortion by Individual A for false molestation accusations, the lawyer said.

But after recording conversations between Mr. Hastert and Individual A, the authorities concluded that there was no extortion. They found that Individual A had wanted to bring lawyers in to negotiate a formal settlement with Mr. Hastert, but that he had declined to involve anyone else.

Prosecutors say Individual A was not the only student molested. At least three other men — all former members of the team, as young as 14 — said they, too, had been abused. The acts included “touching of minors’ groin area and genitals or oral sex with a minor,” prosecutors said. One man, Stephen Reinboldt, told his sister, Jolene Burdge, of repeated incidents of abuse, all through high school; he died in 1995.

Mr. Hastert has not been charged with sexual abuse, and prosecutors said the reported incidents were beyond the statutes of limitation. Still, Mr. Hastert’s lawyers have said he was “deeply sorry and apologizes for his misconduct that occurred decades ago and the resulting harm he caused to others.”

In the case of at least Mr. Cross, the former wrestler who testified on Wednesday, Mr. Hastert’s lawyers had said that he did not contest the allegations, but that “in all candor he has no current recollection of the episode.”

A long list of supporters — from Mr. Hastert’s wife Jean to Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader — sent letters of support for Mr. Hastert to Judge Durkin, who is the brother of a Republican state lawmaker in Illinois. “He doesn’t deserve what he is going through,” Mr. DeLay wrote.

Other supporters included wrestling coaches, lawyers, former students and former law enforcement officials. Mr. Hastert’s brother, Dave, wrote that he feared Mr. Hastert would fall into depression, given his circumstances and the physical ailments that have left him in a wheelchair. “If it were me, I’d be wheeling that chair to the highway, and waiting for a semi,” his brother wrote.

“By any measure, appearing before this court to receive its sentence will be the most difficult day in Mr. Hastert’s life,” his lawyers wrote in a memo to the judge. “Mr. Hastert’s fall from grace has been swift and devastating.”

Prosecutors have argued that a sentence for Mr. Hastert must balance Mr. Hastert’s years of public service with a need to “avoid a public perception that the powerful are treated differently than ordinary citizens when facing sentencing for a serious crime.”

Mr. Hastert’s history, the prosecutors have written, is “marred by stunning hypocrisy.”

“While the defendant achieved great success, reaping all the benefits that went with it,’ they wrote, “these boys struggled, and all are still struggling now with what defendant did to them.”

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Dennis Hastert Sentenced to 15 Months, and Apologizes for Sex Abuse,
April 27, 2016,






Justice Dept. Condemns

Profit-Minded Court Policies

Targeting the Poor


MARCH 14, 2016

The New York Times



WASHINGTON — The Justice Department on Monday called on state judges across the country to root out unconstitutional policies that have locked poor people in a cycle of fines, debt and jail. It was the Obama administration’s latest effort to take its civil rights agenda to the states, which have become a frontier in the fight over the rights of the poor and the disabled, the transgender and the homeless.

In a letter to chief judges and court administrators, Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department’s top civil rights prosecutor, and Lisa Foster, who leads a program on court access, warned against operating courthouses as for-profit ventures. It chastised judges and court staff members for using arrest warrants as a way to collect fees. Such policies, the letter said, made it more likely that poor people would be arrested, jailed and fined anew — all for being unable to pay in the first place.

It is unusual for the Justice Department to write such a letter. It last did so in 2010, when the department told judges that they were obligated to provide translators for people who could not speak English. The letters do not have the force of law, but they declare the federal government’s position and put local officials on notice about its priorities.

Ms. Gupta said that in some cities, hefty fines served as a sort of bureaucratic cover charge for the right to seek justice. People cannot even start the process of defending themselves until they have settled their debts.

“This unconstitutional practice is often framed as a routine administrative matter,” Ms. Gupta wrote. “For example, a motorist who is arrested for driving with a suspended license may be told that the penalty for the citation is $300 and that a court date will be scheduled only upon the completion of a $300 payment.”

The letter echoes the conclusions of the Justice Department’s investigation of the Police Department and court in Ferguson, Mo. Investigators there concluded that the court was a moneymaking venture, not an independent branch of government. Ms. Gupta, who oversaw that investigation, has often cited Ferguson as a cautionary tale in her speeches, describing how fines for minor offenses like jaywalking pulled people into the criminal justice system and made it impossible to escape.

The Obama administration has used letters, both in and out of court, to help push the boundaries of civil rights law. In dozens of lawsuits around the country, many of which involved local disputes, the Justice Department has filed so-called statements of interest, throwing its weight behind private lawsuits. It has filed such statements in matters involving legal aid for the poor, transgender students, juvenile prisoners and people who take videos of police officers.

After the 2010 letter, the Justice Department opened investigations into the court systems in Colorado and North Carolina.

The department has broad authority to determine how the nation’s laws are enforced and, in many ways, how criminal defendants are treated in the nation’s 94 Federal District Courts. But most people interact only with the local or state courts, and that is where their impressions of the fairness of the American judicial system are formed.

Equal access to the courts is a constitutional right, and both Attorney General Loretta Lynch and her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., made court treatment a priority. Ms. Lynch recently spoke in forceful terms about Ferguson, and has called for fairness in how courts set bail, levy fines and determine sentences.

“When bail is set unreasonably high, people are behind bars only because they are poor,” Ms. Lynch said at the White House in December. “Not because they’re a danger or a flight risk — only because they are poor. They don’t have money to get out of jail, and they certainly don’t have money to flee anywhere. Other people who do have the means can avoid the system, setting inequality in place from the beginning.”

The issue has helped forge alliances between liberal civil rights groups and conservative organizations. Grover Norquist, the conservative activist, spoke last year at a White House summit meeting on poverty and incarceration. The Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization, has brought lawsuits accusing cities of using court fines to raise revenue.

Ms. Gupta wrote in her letter that courts were obligated to consider whether defendants were able to pay their fines. And she discouraged judges from using license suspensions as a punishment for missed payments. Doing so, she wrote, made it harder for people to get to work and to court, and made it more likely that they would fall further behind in their payments or face new penalties for missing court appointments.

Some courts hire private contractors to run their probation departments, and Ms. Gupta raised concerns about agreements that allow those contractors to profit from discretionary fines that the companies themselves get to issue.

Along with the letter, the Justice Department announced on Monday that it would offer $2.5 million in grants to help courts change their policies on fines.


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A version of this article appears in print on March 15, 2016,
on page A12 of the New York edition with the headline: Justice Dept. Tells State Courts to End Policies That Prey
on the Poor.

Justice Dept. Condemns Profit-Minded Court Policies Targeting the Poor,
March 24, 2016,






Wrong Man Convicted

of 1957 Murder in Illinois,

Prosecutor Says


MARCH 25, 2016

The New York Times



It was hailed as a victory for the persistence of justice. Some five and a half decades after a 7-year-old girl was kidnapped, strangled and stabbed in rural northern Illinois, Jack McCullough, a military veteran and former police officer, was convicted of the killing in 2012 in what was believed to be one of the oldest American cold cases to result in an arrest.

But now, the local prosecutor says that his office locked up the wrong man.

Richard Schmack, the state’s attorney for DeKalb County, Ill., about 60 miles west of Chicago, said on Friday that a review of evidence not presented at the trial has convinced him that Mr. McCullough, 76, could not have committed the crime. As such, Mr. Schmack, who was elected to his post after Mr. McCullough’s conviction, said he would not contest the defendant’s motion to have his conviction overturned at a hearing in county court on Tuesday.

Pending a judge’s review, Mr. McCullough could be released from prison.

“All the evidence I found pointed toward him being innocent,” Mr. Schmack said in an interview on Friday.

Mr. Schmack’s decision represented a remarkable turn in a case that shocked small-town Sycamore, and drew special attention from J. Edgar Hoover, then the director of the F.B.I., and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The killing of the girl, Maria Ridulph, on Dec. 3, 1957, and the eventual conviction of Mr. McCullough inspired a book and a documentary. Maria’s brother, Charles Ridulph, said he was not surprised by Mr. Schmack’s decision because the prosecutor had been giving him regular updates during the investigation, and he seemed to be headed in that direction. But Mr. Ridulph, 70, said he was upset by the decision.

“He’s thrown out all of the evidence that’s been presented in court,” Mr. Ridulph said of the prosecutor. “It’s been a very trying day, and we feel helpless because we have no one representing us in these proceedings, no one representing the victim or us as victims in these proceedings because Richard Schmack, as the state’s attorney, is acting as the defense counsel.”

Adding to the pain, Mr. Ridulph said, was that Mr. Schmack notified him of the decision in an email on Friday morning, which Mr. Ridulph, a Lutheran deacon, read before he left to lead a Good Friday service.

Mr. Schmack explained his reason for believing that Mr. McCullough, who is serving a life sentence in state prison, was innocent in a 38-page court filing. Mr. Schmack said he reviewed thousands of documents that were ruled inadmissible at trial, including reports from an F.B.I. investigation conducted at the time of the killing. The review was in response to a motion by Mr. McCullough for a new trial after he lost several previous appeals.

The smoking gun for Mr. Schmack was evidence that Mr. McCullough, who at the time went by John Tessier, placed a collect phone call to his parents from a pay phone at a post office in Rockford, Ill., at 6:57 p.m. on the night Maria was abducted. Other evidence, Mr. Schmack said, showed that Maria was probably kidnapped around 6:30 p.m. at the earliest, and it would have been impossible for Mr. McCullough to have taken her and made it to Rockford, about 40 miles away, on the night of a snowstorm, in time to place the call. Mr. Ridulph disputed Mr. Schmack’s timeline, saying that the one created by the state police that had his sister being abducted around 6:15 p.m. was more accurate.

Mr. McCullough, who was 17 at the time of the murder, was never arrested and moved to Seattle. But Mr. McCullough’s sister told the authorities that their mother told her in 1994, when she was on her deathbed, that Mr. McCullough had killed Maria. The state police reopened the investigation in 2008.

There was no physical evidence linking Mr. McCullough to the killing. But a friend of Maria’s, who was 8 at the time of the abduction, testified during the trial in 2012 that Mr. McCullough had approached them that day when they were playing and had taken her for a piggyback ride before she disappeared.

Mr. Schmack questioned the reliability of that testimony.

“I think it’s an incredibly difficult situation,” said Mr. Schmack, 59, who has lived in Sycamore for 31 years and lives around the corner from Maria’s brother.

Mr. Ridulph said he hoped that the judge would intervene, maintain the conviction and not allow Mr. McCullough to go free.


A version of this article appears in print on March 26, 2016,
on page A11 of the New York edition with the headline:
Wrong Man Convicted of 1957 Murder in Illinois,
Prosecutor Says.

Wrong Man Convicted of 1957 Murder in Illinois, Prosecutor Says,
NYT, March 25, 2016,






Prisoners Exonerated,

Prosecutors Exposed


FEB. 12, 2016

The New York Times


The Opinion Pages | Editorial


In 2015, 149 people convicted of crimes large and small — from capital murder to burglary — were exonerated. It is the highest yearly total since this grim form of record-keeping began, in 1989.

In that time, there have been at least 1,733 exonerations across the country, and the pace keeps picking up. On average, about three convicted people are now exonerated of their crimes every week, according to the annual report of the National Registry of Exonerations. The registry defines an exoneration as a case in which someone convicted of a crime is cleared of all charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The individual cost to those wrongly convicted is steep: Last year’s group spent an average of more than 14 years behind bars. Five had been sentenced to death. Amazingly, half of the exonerations involved cases in which no crime occurred at all — for example, a conviction of murder by arson that later turned out to be based on faulty fire science.

Equally eye-opening is the list of reasons behind these miscarriages of justice. For instance, 27 of last year’s exonerations were for convictions based on a false confession. This happened most often in homicide cases in which the defendant was a juvenile, intellectually disabled, mentally ill or some combination of the three. In nearly half of all 2015 exonerations, the defendant pleaded guilty before trial.

These numbers are a bracing reminder that admissions of guilt are unreliable far more often than is generally believed. Some defendants, especially the young or mentally impaired, can be pushed to admit guilt when they are innocent. Some with prior criminal records may not be able to afford bail but don’t want to spend months in pretrial detention or risk a much longer sentence if they choose to go to trial.

Official misconduct — including perjury, withholding of exculpatory evidence and coercive interrogation practices — occurred in three of every four exonerations involving homicide, and it was an important factor in many other cases as well.

As high as these exoneration numbers are, they still understate the scope of the problem, since not all cases involving misconduct come to light.

The good news is that Americans are starting to grasp the depth of the problem. The Innocence Project, now more than 20 years old, has shown again and again how many ways a conviction can be obtained wrongfully. And in-depth investigations of questionable murder convictions by popular shows like “Serial” and “Making a Murderer” have led to calls for greater prosecutorial accountability.

As technologies like DNA testing have become more widely used, some prosecutors’ offices have begun to take responsibility for correcting their own errors. In the last seven years, almost two dozen offices in 11 states and the District of Columbia have opened conviction-integrity units to re-examine old cases. But the units vary widely in effectiveness. Half have never exonerated anyone, while two, in Brooklyn and in Harris County, Tex., were responsible for one-third of last year’s exonerations.

It is good to see any degree of self-reflection and accountability from prosecutors, who wield enormous and often unreviewed power in the criminal justice system. It would be even better for them to put in place safeguards that would prevent wrongful convictions in the first place.


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A version of this editorial appears in print on February 13, 2016, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: Prisoners Exonerated, Prosecutors Exposed.

Prisoners Exonerated, Prosecutors Exposed,
NYT, Feb. 12, 2016,






Georgia Police Officer

Indicted for Murder

of Unarmed Black Man


JAN. 21, 2016

The New York Times



DECATUR, Ga. — A white police officer was indicted here Thursday on six counts, including felony murder, in the fatal shooting last year of an unarmed black man who was naked and described as acting in an erratic manner.

The indictment of Officer Robert Olsen of the DeKalb County Police Department came about two weeks after the district attorney said he would ask a grand jury to pursue criminal charges in the death of Anthony Hill, a 27-year-old Air Force veteran.

The indictment, which District Attorney Robert D. James Jr. of DeKalb County announced at a Thursday night news conference, with Mr. Hill’s family members seated in the first row, was an emotional and surprising development. It played out in this city just east of Atlanta where, it seemed, few people had expected that Officer Olsen would be charged with murder. Mr. James said a judge had issued an arrest warrant and that Officer Olsen would soon be arrested.

“This is a day in history,” said a lawyer for Mr. Hill’s family, Christopher M. Chestnut, who also said, “Hopefully, this will set a precedent for discouraging paramilitary policing.”

In an email Thursday night, Officer Olsen’s lawyer, Don Samuel, said he was “disappointed in the decision of the grand jury.”

“The defense, of course, was not permitted to present any of the witnesses who were present at the scene, or any expert witnesses who would testify that Officer Olsen’s reaction to the threat of violent injury was reasonable,” said Mr. Samuel, who added, “When this case is presented in a fair manner to a jury in an open courtroom, Officer Olsen will be fully exonerated.”

Although Mr. James had announced this month that he would seek an indictment, prosecutors faced an especially complex challenge because of the legal protections that are guaranteed to law enforcement officers in Georgia. Those safeguards, which are among the country’s most extensive, give accused officers access to the grand jury’s meeting, as well as the opportunity to address the panel without the threat of cross-examination or a rebuttal by prosecutors.

Officer Olsen spoke to the grand jury for about 20 minutes, his lawyer said. He has not publicly discussed the shooting on March 9, seven months to the day after a police killing in Ferguson, Mo., that spurred large protests and prompted a continuing national debate about race and law enforcement practices.

Race was an inescapable element of the outcry surrounding Mr. Hill’s shooting in DeKalb County, where nearly 55 percent of the 722,000 or so residents are black.

But in the wake of the killing, Mr. Hill’s family members focused on what they described as the failure of Officer Olsen and the Police Department to respond appropriately to a man who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. According to court filings and witnesses, Officer Olsen was sent to Mr. Hill’s apartment complex in Chamblee, northeast of Atlanta, while the man was in the midst of what his family described in a lawsuit as “a nonviolent mental episode.” He had, for instance, repeatedly jumped from the balcony of his second-floor apartment, and his speech was unintelligible.

After the arrival of Officer Olsen, who had a Taser device and had received training about how to deal with people suffering from mental illness, witnesses said that Mr. Hill did not comply with the officer’s directions to stop his advance. Mr. Hill’s hands, they said, were raised or at his sides before Officer Olsen opened fire. Mr. Hill, his family said in a court document last year, “was unarmed, unclothed and displaying no signs of aggression at the time of the shooting, and he presented no threat to Officer Olsen or anyone else.”

Mr. Hill’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, in Federal District Court in Atlanta, against Officer Olsen and the county.

In the lawsuit, which is pending, Mr. Hill’s family said Officer Olsen had “a long and extensive history of aggressive conduct” and “propensity toward anger when dealing with members of the public.” On Thursday, Mr. Samuel described Officer Olsen as “a distinguished member of the Police Department who had never been accused of using excessive force and had never previously discharged his firearm in the line of duty.”

But the official investigation into Officer Olsen’s conduct, not the federal lawsuit, has consumed much of the attention here. That inquiry included the closed-door reviews by civil and criminal grand juries. In October, the civil panel, an advisory group, recommended that officials continue their investigation into Mr. Hill’s death.

During an appearance before the civil grand jury, Mr. Hill’s family has said, Officer Olsen said he had believed that Mr. Hill was under the influence of a substance like PCP, and that he had “cast the blame for the shooting” on the Police Department.

In its summary of the officer’s testimony, Mr. Hill’s family said that Officer Olsen described the department as having failed “to train him and the other officers in the Department in identifying and deciphering nonviolent or nonaggressive psychological episodes versus the threat of a potentially violent encounter with a citizen high on PCP.”

By early January, though, Mr. James had decided to ask the grand jury to charge Officer Olsen with felony murder, aggravated assault, violation of oath of office and making a false statement.

Grand juries in Georgia have rarely returned indictments against police officers who were involved in shootings. In October, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the state had logged more than 170 fatal police shootings since 2010, and that just one police officer had been charged in connection with the killing of a civilian. (The case against that officer, in a city south of Atlanta, was ultimately dismissed.)

Prosecutions have been scarce, lawyers say, at least in part because of the protections afforded to officers in Georgia. Mr. James implicitly criticized those rules just weeks ago, but their supporters argue that they serve as crucial checks on prosecutorial authority.

“The grand jury has to hear, without a doubt, the reasonable, subjective views of the officer and the reason why a law enforcement officer would act,” Lance LoRusso, a defense lawyer who works with the Georgia division of the Fraternal Order of Police, said this month. “Private citizens don’t get paid to use deadly force; law enforcement officers do.”

On Thursday night, members of Mr. Hill’s family emerged from the courthouse to cheers from protesters who had gathered outside for days.

“I’m just glad that the jury saw what we already saw: the evidence, the truth,” said Carolyn Giummo, Mr. Hill’s mother.

“I’m speechless.”


A version of this article appears in print on January 22, 2016, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: White Officer Is Indicted in Killing of Black Man.

Georgia Police Officer Indicted for Murder of Unarmed Black Man,
JAN. 21, 2016, NYT,





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