Stennis

Welfare: new counsel for civil suit hired, defense objects

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Welfare agency hires new counsel for civil suit, defense attorney objects

The Mississippi State Personnel Board gave the state’s welfare department the green light Thursday to hire new legal counsel for its high-profile civil to recoup millions in misspent welfare funds.

Jackson-based law firm Jones Walker will replace former U.S. Attorney Brad Pigott, the contract attorney who initially crafted the lawsuit, after the Gov. Tate Reeves administration abruptly removed Pigott from the case last month. The new one-year contract is for up to $400,000, with partners working on the case earning a rate of $305-an-hour. Pigott’s contract was for up to $75,000 for the previous year.

One defense attorney on the case is criticizing the state for using taxpayer money in its pursuit of many low-level characters in the overarching welfare scandal. The attorney, Jim Waide, is also raising questions about how the new contract will ensure that Reeves is not controlling the case to the extent that he would prevent other potential parties, including himself and former Gov. Phil Bryant, from being included as defendants if the attorneys deemed that appropriate. Mississippi Today has uncovered communication connecting certain welfare expenditures to both Bryant and Reeves.

Mississippi Department of Human Services is suing 38 people or companies, including former NFL quarterback Brett Favre and three retired WWE wrestlers, who it says were responsible for misspending roughly $24 million from a federal grant called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

“They (Jones Walker) will vigorously pursue this case—wherever it leads,” Gov. Reeves said in a statement following the contract approval. “They will eagerly cooperate with those criminal investigators whose mission is to get truth and justice for the misconduct that occurred during the previous administration. And they will leave no stone unturned in the effort to recover misspent TANF funds.”

In the personnel board meeting, Mississippi Department of Human Services Director Bob Anderson said he believes the agency needs a larger legal team as the litigation moves into the discovery and trial phases. Anderson had previously justified Pigott’s removal by saying the attorney failed to communicate with the agency about a subpoena he filed on University of Southern Mississippi athletic foundation.

Anderson said the new attorneys who will be handling the case, Kaytie Pickett and Adam Stone, have experience in complex commercial litigation as well as procurement-related matters.

“While Brad Pigott initiated and prepared the original complaint in this case, we believe that Jones Walker is who we need to finish the process of getting to final judgment and recovery of funds,” Anderson said in a written statement. “They have a deep bench and are well acquainted with complex electronic discovery platforms, which will be crucial in a case like this involving hundreds and thousands of documents.”

Jones Walker, like many large law firms across the state, is a frequent campaign donor to Mississippi politicians — including a total of at least $18,000 to Reeves, according to records on FollowTheMoney.org. Locally, the firm used to be Watkins Ludlam Winter & before it merged with Jones Walker over a decade ago.

The ’s Office also had to approve the contract.

Waide, an attorney for a defendant in the case, wrote a letter to the personnel board before the meeting criticizing the state’s decision to hire a new law firm and urging the board not to approve a contract that wastes taxpayer funds. Waide represents Austin Smith, the nephew of the former MDHS director John Davis, who is facing criminal charges in the scheme.

Hardwick, director of the personnel board, said the board reviewed the letter, but that “that’s outside of anything we would consider.”

Hardwick said the Jones Walker contract was within the state’s procurement guidelines and regulations.

Waide had recently filed an objection to the state’s motion to withdraw Pigott as counsel and asked that the court examine whether Reeves is controlling the lawsuit to protect himself and his supporters. The filing came after Mississippi Today uncovered text messages connecting the current governor to the funding of fitness trainer Paul Lacoste, a defendant in the case. Lacoste’s organization received $1.3 million, more than $300,000 of which went to Lacoste personally, according to records, to conduct fitness classes for roughly eight months in 2019. Then-Lt. Gov. Reeves attended the boot camp while texts show Lacoste used his relationship with Reeves to endear himself to the welfare director.

Previous reporting also showed that Reeves’ office directed MDHS to remove the University of Southern Mississippi Athletic Foundation, whose board is made up of several Reeves donors, from the suit before it was filed. The foundation used $5 million in welfare funds to build a volleyball stadium on campus.

“…the governor himself is a potential defendant,” Waide wrote to the personnel board. “Because of the potential financial interest of the governor, he should hire his own attorney, and should not be furnished an attorney at taxpayer expense.”

In his statement, Anderson noted that Jones Walker will be tasked with, among other things, evaluating claims against additional potential defendants. Several law firms Anderson spoke with could not take the case because of conflicts.

Waide also called into question why Attorney General Lynn Fitch, the state’s official litigator, is not handling the case.

“Unless the Attorney General has a conflict of interest, there is no reason why she should not pursue this suit without costing the taxpayers,” Waide wrote.

Waide also argued that if MDHS hires a law firm to represent the state, it should pay the firm based on what they recoup in the litigation, not a set fee, especially since so many of the defendants will likely not be able to pay the potential damages. An attorney under a contingency arrangement might be more likely to pursue other entities that received welfare funds — such as the USM athletic foundation — who received larger amounts of money and would be more likely able to return the funds.

“An hourly fee arrangement with any firm will likely result in the expensive pursuit of low-level defendants, such as Austin Smith and others, who have no means to pay a judgement. On the other hand, an attorney hired on a contingent fee basis would pursue those who are financially able to pay a judgement, and would cost the taxpayers nothing if no funds are recovered.”

Jones Walker did not return calls to Mississippi Today for this story.

“This work is just beginning, and it may take years—but we will follow the facts wherever they go and pursue it for as long as it takes,” said Reeves’ statement Thursday. “That is what the state has done since I took office, and we will continue to do it aggressively.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Stennis Space Center’s role in NASA’S Artemis One

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www.wxxv25.com – Ansley Brent – 2022-08-11 17:51:43

When Artemis One launches later this month for a flight to the moon, employees at can take pride in knowing they were a major stepping stone in that project.

Space Center has a big role to play in NASA’s Artemis One launch on August 29th. Artemis One is the first test that combines both NASA’s space launch system and Orion Spacecraft.

The success of a crewless, wide orbit around the moon will validate the design and safety for a human exploration mission in the future.

The Aerojet Rocketdyne Facility at Stennis is a home for assembly and…

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Cotter to step down as Hancock port CEO; LaFontaine to take reins

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-07-05 15:59:24

Lafontaine Photo Headshot Resize

Blaine LaFontaine

Hancock County Port and Harbor CEO William “Bill” Cotter is retiring at the end of the year.

Cotter has served with Port and Harbor for 23 years in various roles, including International Airport Director, agency chief operations officer and, since 2021, CEO.

“After a lifelong career in aviation and economic development, I’ve decided it’s time to take break and refocus my energy,” Cotter said. “My…

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Body found under tires in NASA Buffer Zone

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-05-09 18:02:28

The Hancock County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a body that was found over the weekend.

According to the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, firefighters discovered the remains Saturday as they were monitoring a controlled burn in the NASA Buffer Zone near Space Center.

Hancock County Sheriff Ricky Adam says the body was found buried under tires north of I-10 and west of Highway 607.

He says it had been…

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Hancock County asking public’s help to identify body found near Stennis

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Biloxi - Local News Feed Images 012

www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-05-09 11:29:32

Hancock County Sheriff’s Department is trying to identify the remains of a person found buried under tires in NASA’S Space Center Buffer Zone.

The body was found Saturday by workers contracted by the Forestry Service to conduct a controlled burn in the area.

The Sheriff’s Department was called after the workers found human remains in a heavily wooded area. Deputies and investigators found the unidentified,…

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How the Gulf Coast train beef between Amtrak and CSX is intensifying

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Snarky tweets, time lapse videos: How the Gulf Coast train beef between Amtrak and CSX is intensifying

– Marc Magilari leaned against a railing at a community civic center, perched above the railway as a CSX freight train roared by. 

It was the fourth train to come through Bay St. Louis that Wednesday, just after 4 p.m. Magilari, a spokesman for Amtrak, and a small camera had been keeping watch since 8 a.m. to survey the train traffic. It rolled footage of hours of empty tracks live on Twitch

In a railroad beef that’s been building for years, Amtrak has turned to live streams, snarky tweets and time lapse videos to help prove its point: Passenger and freight trains can coexist on the railways that run through Mississippi from Mobile to New Orleans. 

Marc Magliari of Amtrak watches as a CSX freight trains passes through Bay St. Louis on April 6. Amtrak is fighting to have a passenger train run on the track from Mobile to New Orleans with four stops in Mississipi.

“We can help people in this town,” Magilari said during his Bay St. Louis visit. “That’s why we’re here.” 

Amtrak wants to expand access to public transportation. CSX and other freight companies say the addition of passengers at this time could heighten supply chain issues and harm businesses relying on the Port of Mobile.

Freight company officials say Mississippi’s railway corridor is congested; that Amtrak is over simplifying obstacles; and that the repairs and updates needed to accommodate passenger trains will cost taxpayers upwards of $400 million. In a statement, CSX called Amtrak’s and others live videos misleading.  

Amtrak contends that CSX’s explanations are largely scare or delay tactics because the transport company doesn’t want passenger rail to expand on its tracks, even if federal law says they’re supposed to share. It also disputes CSX’s hefty repair and update estimate. The project already has more $77 million in secured funding. 

The back-and-forth – which has been near constant since 2015 and beyond – is why a federal board has been tasked to find the truth and make a decision about the route’s future. Amtrak wants to run two round-trip trains between Mobile and New Oreleans – one in the morning and one in the evening – with four stops in Mississippi. 

READ MORE: The fate of Amtrak’s Gulf Coast return rests with a federal board

The Surface Transportation Board, a body of transportation experts selected by the president and approved by congress, entered its second week of an evidentiary hearing over the Gulf Coast route dispute on Tuesday morning. The hearing is based in Washington, D.C. but being live streamed to the public. 

It’s not just Gulf Coast leaders and Amtrak watching closely. The debate has turned into a test case that experts say could dictate the future of railroad expansion across the United States. 

By law, Amtrak can run passenger trains on tracks owned by a freight company as long as it doesn’t “unreasonably impair” businesses. The law stems from a 1970s agreement – often called the “great bargain” – between struggling railroad companies that needed debt forgiven and the federal government. 

The board is litigating what constitutes “unreasonable” impacts on business for the first time. And that definition could affect the 160 other communities Amtrak wants to grow or restore service to as part of its “Amtrak Connects” plan, as they would all share tracks with freight companies. 

Experts have said its unlikely freight rail companies will let up on the fight easily since Amtrak first filed a complaint with the board over a year ago. 

“This is their Waterloo,” said Thomas “Todd” , an Amtrak senior manager from

In the second 8-hour day of the hearing last week, CSX’s legal team began laying what seemed to be the groundwork for an argument to appeal the board’s pending decision. 

In a statement to Mississippi Today, CSX said it doesn’t comment on legal strategies. 

CSX attorney Raymond Atkins – who was once the transportation board’s own lawyer – told the board last week that some of their questions of a witness could be veering into advocacy. 

“This is a unique case where you’re charged by congress and stepping into the role of a judge and you can overstep those bounds if your questioning is too partisan or too extensive,” Atkins said, referencing case law examples of decisions being overturned. 

Board chair Martin Oberman disagreed, saying while CSX’s team could continue to object to questions, he and other board members wouldn’t change how they were questioning witnesses. 

Oberman said that, if anything, not asking questions to get facts that make the record as robust as possible could leave room for the future decision to be overturned. 

“We are not a court, we are not a jury,” Martin said during the hearing. “We have some similarities to those bodies but we are an administrative agency with an obligation to protect the freight network to ensure the law is enforced in regards to the passenger rail network with a very broad and important public interest.” 

Public transportation advocates like Jim Matthews, the CEO of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said it’s likely CSX will appeal a ruling that’s in favor of Amtrak. 

“But I think the (board) is doing an excellent job,” Matthews said. “And that bodes well for passenger rail because it makes an appeal based on the merits likely to fail.” 

But an appeal, regardless of its success or failure, would likely mean even more waiting for a region that hasn’t had access to an Amtrak route since 2005. 

Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, poses in front of a stream of the Surface Transportation Board hearing during a visit to the Gulf Coast.
Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak, poses in front of a stream of the Surface Transportation Board hearing during a visit to Bay St. Louis on April 6. Magliari set up a “gold-plated” railroad model as Amtrak’s commentary on what it calls freight train’s inflated repair estimates to run passenger routes on their tracks.

“We’re not giving up,” Magilari said. 

After Amtrak’s live stream in Bay. St. Louis, Transportation for America – an advocacy group – posted a time-lapse video out of Pascagoula

The group’s camera ran from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. and captured seven trains, with a bridge moving up and down to accommodate each train. Like Amtrak, the advocacy group argues train traffic over this stretch of about 150 miles of railway isn’t excessive. 

CSX says that focusing on one point on the route doesn’t show the full scope of the corridor.

“Purporting that it is indicative of the operational realities of the entire line is grossly misleading,” CSX said in a statement. “Anyone that understands railroad operations, including Amtrak, would know that.” 

CSX says it averages eight to 10 through trains (that make limited stops), one to three coal and giant trains and “numerous local trains” on the track each day.

While the board could make a ruling that calls for the parties to go to mediation to solve the access quarrel, that route seems unlikely given how little the parties can agree on historically. A spokesman for the board said there is no mandated timeline they have to follow once the hearing is over to announce their decision. 

The board has made it clear it takes the weight of the case seriously. The hearings were first scheduled to only last a week, but by the end of day one it was clear it would stretch beyond that. As of Tuesday, April 14, 18 and 19 were scheduled as hearing dates. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Flight Path – N8170J Gear Up Landing Gulfport Mississippi

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2022-03-07 22:18:02, 1646713082

emergency #planecrash #landing Borger Airport Texas to Bay St Louis- International Airport diverted to -

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Reeves announces $2.8 million for site development in Hancock County

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www.wxxv25.com – WXXV Staff – 2022-02-10 11:03:01

Gov. Tate Reeves today announced the state is investing nearly $2.8 million for site development projects with Hancock County Port and Harbor Commission.

Through the RESTORE Act, International Airport will receive $2,547,940 for engineering, design and site development at Stennis Technology Park, a 40-acre, multi-phase development.

Through the Mississippi Development Authority, Port Bienville Industrial Park will…

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Why Robert Johnson, a Democratic leader, often works with Republicans

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Why Rep. Robert Johnson, a top Democratic leader, often works with Republicans

State Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez says he can remember his parents “having him on the picket line when he was 10 years old” in Adams County because a local store would not employee Black cashiers.

But he said the same parents developed relationships with white power brokers in Adams County: a banker who helped his father obtain a needed loan for his business, and a real estate agent who helped his father purchase land along the Mississippi River that powerful white residents didn’t want an African American to own. His mother, Johnson said, developed relationships with white school administrators that advanced her career.

Johnson, the Democratic leader in the Mississippi House of Representatives, applies those values at the Capitol, where Republicans can pass any bill without a single Democratic vote. Even outside the Capitol, Mississippi Democrats wield little political influence and have struggled to organize and fight against a growing Republican landscape.

Often, Johnson said, he tries to balance his party’s platforms and stances on issues with his pragmatism about where the power really lies.

“I know we have possibilities in this state to do things we have not done,” Johnson said Monday during a lunch meeting of the Mississippi State University Institute of Government/Capitol Press Corps.

“I continue to work that way,” Johnson said. “I don’t do it because I am a Democrat. I don’t do it because I am a Black person. I do it because (Mississippi) is where I want to be … I hope it is the beginning of what I think are progressive ways to get things done around the state, to continue to work together to get things done.”

Johnson has earned respect among many lawmakers — and sometimes criticism from his fellow Democrats — for often working with House Speaker Philip Gunn and other Republican House leaders. He said even though he disagrees with Gunn on many issues, he considers him a friend.

READ MORE: Robert Johnson became a key ally of last Democratic speaker after voting against him

He pointed to Gunn’s massive tax restructuring plan as an example of where he has tried to work with Gunn. He and most House Democrats voted in January for Gunn’s proposal to phase out the income tax and increase the sales tax while reducing the tax on food and on car tags.

“Income tax, getting rid of income tax long-term, it doesn’t make much sense at all. But short-term, it gives me an opportunity to be in the room with Philip Gunn when we’ve got $1.8 billion (in federal relief funds) to spend, $1 billion in surplus funds, figuring out what we can do for people all over the state,” Johnson said.

He added, “As we move this state forward, we need to try to find places we can agree.”

Johnson questioned whether the Republican majority can ultimately agree on a plan to eliminate the income tax because of disagreements in how to undertake such a massive endeavor.

“I am betting they butt heads and nobody passes anything,” Johnson predicted, but added that at least Gunn’s plan cuts the state’s grocery tax and reduces by 50% the cost of car tags — both proposals that he said would benefit poor and working people.

Still, Johnson said he often becomes frustrated by what he says is a lack of progress in Mississippi. He believes state leaders are missing opportunities to help the state, such as not expanding to provide health insurance for primarily the working poor. He said eliminating the income tax would not convince young, successful people to stay or move to the state. He said fixing the state’s infrastructure and addressing issues, especially in the city of Jackson, would be a much more effective ways to grow the state’s population.

“Jackson, the capital city, is the front door to the state of Mississippi,” Johnson said.

He said expanding Medicaid and fixing infrastructure could be done with existing funds, including $1.8 billion in federal funds, and go a long way toward addressing the problems in the state.

Still, even as he tries to work across the aisle to get things done, the frustrations mount. He said just about each week of the legislative session, he asks himself, “What the f— are we doing here in the state of Mississippi?”

PODCAST: Rep. Robert Johnson discusses key issues ahead of 2022 legislative session

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Senate leaders unveil historic plan to significantly increase teacher pay

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Senate leaders unveil historic plan to significantly increase teacher pay

Senate leaders on Monday unveiled a proposal to give Mississippi teachers an average raise of $4,700 over two years and restructure the way teachers are paid to provide them higher salaries in the long-term.

The proposal — which, if passed, would represent the largest teacher pay increase since at least the early 2000s — was announced on Monday by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Senate Education Chair Dennis DeBar of Leakesville.

The aim, Senate leaders said, is to structurally address Mississippi’s teacher salaries, which by several metrics are the lowest in the nation.

“This pay plan will make us more competitive with our neighbors,” DeBar said. “Hopefully, this will entice or provide some incentive, some motivation for teachers to stay in the profession as well as stay in Mississippi.”

The Senate’s proposed restructuring of annual changes to teacher pay is aimed at retaining mid- and early career teachers, who often leave the state or the teaching profession altogether because of low pay.

The Senate plan would cost $210 million per year starting the second year. That figure includes a $166 million cost in the first year to restructure step increases and provide a large raise for most teachers, and $44 million starting in the second year for a $1,000 across-the-board raise for all teachers.

The plan was unveiled Monday during a Capitol press corps luncheon meeting of the Mississippi State University Institute of Government where Hosemann, the presiding officer of the Senate, was scheduled to speak.

Unannounced, Hosemann asked DeBar, who was in the audience, to join him at the podium where they outlined the plan.

Teacher pay is expected to be one of the priority issues during the 2022 legislative session, which began last week. Hosemann, Speaker of the House Philip Gunn and Gov. Tate Reeves have all voiced support for “significant” teacher salary increases this year.

Reeves has proposed a $3,300 increase over two years. The House has yet to announce its plan. DeBar said Monday if the House wanted a larger raise that would be OK with him.

Reeves’ office on Monday issued a brief written statement on the Senate plan: “We’re grateful for the Senate’s work on this, and optimistic at this further momentum for a meaningful teacher pay raise this year. Teachers deserve it.”

The significance of the Senate plan, Hosemann and DeBar said, is that it attempts to correct some of the structural deficiencies in the so-called salary ladder.

The ladder, which is written in state law, determines the state compensation each year for teachers based on their years of experience and education level. Each year, with no action from the Legislature, teachers get a small increase as they garner another year of experience. Teachers also receive more pay based on their academic degrees.

Normally, that step increase is around $200-$250 annually. The Senate plan unveiled Monday would make the yearly increase uniform at $500.

The plan also would provide significantly larger raises for each five-year increment —  $1,325 for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree, $1,425 for a master’s, $1,525 for a specialist and $1,624 for a doctorate. The teachers would automatically get the larger step increase every five years and, importantly, those increases would become part of their regular pay.

In addition, the salary ladder would begin after year one for teachers. The current ladder starts after the third year of teaching. And the starting pay for teachers would increase from $37,000 annually to $40,000.

“I think it (Senate plan) will make a difference,” said Riley, executive director of the Mississippi Professional Educators. “Is it all that we want it to be? No.

“It is significant. It is going in the right direction. It will make us more competitive. We are appreciative of (DeBar’s) commitment to this.”

Nancy Loome, director of The Parents’ Campaign, said: “I think it’s a very good effort, and it does a very good job of addressing specific concerns teachers raised during listening sessions. They actually rewrote the entire salary schedule — including adding steps after years one and two, and it compounds, so that raises everybody. The bigger bumps at five year intervals. We are very pleased about that.

“As we heard from (Southern Regional Education Board), our teachers at the top end of the scale actually compare pretty well to other states. They did not leave those teachers out of this plan – everybody gets something – but it’s those teachers in that mid-career range that will see some increases that will help, hopefully allow them to stop those second or third jobs unless they want to work them.”

Erica Jones, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, said she attended several listening sessions the Senate leaders held and, “I believe they were listening to what teachers were saying.”

“I saw it did include the increases for teachers 0-3 years, and we heard that mentioned to them several times,” Jones said. “And we are really pleased to see the year five larger increases. I know this can change as it goes through the legislative process, but we are very pleased with this proposal … One concern I did have was that it didn’t include all school staff — custodians, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.”

The proposal comes on the heels of s roughly $1,000 raise teachers received during the 2021 legislative session. For the past several legislative terms, lawmakers have opted to offer pay raises in small increments rather than addressing the pay scale itself, like in this new Senate plan.

DeBar said he had planned for a smaller pay raise proposal before holding town hall-style meetings with teachers across the state the last few weeks of 2021.

“They were enthusiastic,” DeBar joked.

He and Hosemann said the current unprecedented growth in state collections — 15.9% for last year — gave them the opportunity to propose a larger pay hike.

“If we did not go forward with a significant pay plan this year with the times we have, with the revenue we have… I don’t know if we could do it another year,” DeBar said. “This is the year to do it… It is important to do it now.”

Loome said: “It sounds like we are in a really good place… when the executive and both branches of the Legislature say they are committed to a significant pay raise. I think they are realizing that our teachers are doing an amazing job, but they are being paid near poverty level and it’s not reasonable to expect professional people do to continue to do such a job for such low pay.”

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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