Le Big MacFor two years, a federal grand jury has investigated Governor Fife Symington's business dealings. The state's chief executive is suspected of being the Mac Daddy of phony financial statements.
Financial statements are the backbone of all loans, credit lines, investments, partnerships, debt restructuring, write-downs and all the other transactions that separate the Armani suits from the dorks.
Banks, savings and loans and pension funds rely upon financial statements, absolutely, when they cut you a loan.
For that reason, it is a felony to submit false financial statements. It can land your butt in prison for up to 30 years and cost you a million dollars in fines every time you get caught lying.
It's almost as bad as putting mayonnaise on your French fries.
Pulp Friction: When the Grit Connecting Reel Live Art and Reality Sticks in Your Teeth
On September 20, Governor Symington sought protection in bankruptcy court to avoid paying back the millions in pension funds he'd borrowed to build the Mercado. It was a Kodak moment gone cinematic: Atrust-fund descendant of one of America's most notorious strike-busters, Symington borrowed $10 million from Arizona unions... and then stiffed them.Like all Fife deals that interest the feds, the Mercado loan was structured on Symington's financial statements.
Thanks to the open nature of bankruptcy proceedings--the unions can demand all of Symington's business records--you will now get to see how the governor pulled it off.
In particular, you will hear a full accounting of the explosive "Ivan Memorandum," a document that offers an unforgettable inside view of the federal grand jury's investigation of Le Big Mac.
Oh, I'm going to the bankruptcy hearing. That's all there is to it. This ain't no dry-as-parchment deal going down.
No, man, you'll dig it the most.
A Royale With Cheese
I remember the arrogance and the pomposity of his candidacy for governor in 1990, an impression enhanced by the musk of blue blood suggested by his very name, J. Fife Symington III. He was the not-so-distant spawn of that obscene robber baron Henry Frick, and he had moved here to save us.
"What Arizona needs right now is a business mind," Symington said to the press in his campaign announcement. "The state needs a man who can provide experienced, professional fiscal management to pull it out of its economic crisis.
"I am that man."
After the lean jerky we'd all survived on during the administration of that impeached cracker car dealer, Evan Mecham, Symington seemed to be offering beef Wellington. Which is not to say that anyone thought this was the second coming of Camelot.
Arizona has never been about political campaigns. The action here has always been in real estate; young bucks left law firms to wheel and deal while Dick Dale's Miserlou twanged on the Jag's stereo. Symington was trying to change the natural order of things by deserting the world of real estate jungle boogie for the realm of public accountability. Some of us were skeptical. And as it played out, Fife Symington was a man with something to hide from the very beginning.
When a suspicious reporter from this paper asked for an accounting of Symington's highly leveraged, $200 million domino developments, the candidate dropped the velvet curtain of propriety over his business affairs.
"I do development, and I do politics," Symington told the journalist. "They're two separate things, and I try to keep them that way. And that's it."
Wasn't he grand? Why, the man was positively papal.
Can you blame the average guy on the street for feeling, just a little bit, like Fife was inviting all of us to join him at the banquet of life? And all he asked was that we remember our table manners.
Almost as soon as Symington was elected in 1991, his financial empire collapsed. His net worth dropped faster than Robin Givens on Mike Tyson's best night.
Finally, last month, having just returned from a splendid family jaunt through the capitals of Europe, he declared bankruptcy.
Now Symington's Chapter 7 will allow all of us to look into Fife's financial hamper.
Because all of Fife's dirty laundry is open to inspection by his creditors, it is a highly public wash-o-rama. And what you will see is that he was not a victim, as he claims, of the real estate market. Fife was a grifter, a confidence man from the git-go.
At times, Symington's high financial appraisals of his projects were Saudi Arabian in their grandeur.
Other times, he could hardly get it up to maintain even a semblance of a charade of propriety.
When Symington persuaded his fellow board members at Southwest Savings and Loan, for example, to invest in his own Esplanade, the single largest play in the S&L's 32-year history, he submitted a flimsy, four-page "letter of opinion" instead of the narrative appraisal required by law. Nobody ever put a pencil to this $30 million pipe dream. Nor did Symington bother to get the written approval of federal oversight regulators on the Esplanade scheme--oversight which, again, was required by law.
Instead, Fife and the boys sat around the board table and played winky-dink with each other--though he did, for the sake of appearances, excuse himself from the final vote on the institution's investment in his own project. Symington used the life savings of Phoenix's working stiffs to finance his megalomania. (Fife's original plan for the "world class" Esplanade included an enormous tropical rain forest in the atrium; he thought it was a smashing idea to bring New Guinea to 24th Street and Camelback.) The Esplanade soon became the biggest loss in the billion-dollar collapse of Southwest.Following the S&L's failure, criminal referrals that included Symington were sent to the Justice Department. He was also named in the federal government's $197million lawsuit against Southwest's directors.It was all such a shock.
Fife had told us he was prime cut; but when you unwrapped the purple foil, you found a cardboard frame and greasy ground chuck smothered in Velveeta.
I Love You, Pumpkin. I Love You, Honey Bunny. Everybody Be Cool-This Is a Robbery.
Symington responded to the federal lawsuit and the Justice Department probe with lan. He and his wife, Ann, were everywhere. They held their chins high. In photographs they were icons of family bliss.
When asked, Symington simply said the Resolution Trust Corporation was out of control.
But like the country-club hustlers they are, Fife and Ann stuck someone else with the tab.In the case of Southwest Savings, you and I and the rest of the taxpayers out there ate most of the millions in debt. The wealth hidden in Fife and Ann's trusts was judged untouchable. But that's only part of the story.Shortly before running for office, Symington paid a $10,000 kickback to the corrupt administrator of a union pension fund (see the October 5 expos by John Dougherty, "Paying the Piper") to secure financing for the Mercado minimall.
Today this faux Zorro flea market is upside down. The failed Mercado has forced Symington into bankruptcy court, and the pension fund administrator is in federal prison for taking similar, if larger, kickbacks from other developers.
Now guys who pound nails and dig ditches for a living have seen a large part of their pension fund wiped out. Their millions provided the permanent financing for the Mercado's overbudget construction costs. But when too few paying tenants rented out space in the monstrosity, Symington defaulted on the $10 million pension fund note.
Once again, the governor is putting up a smoke screen. Symington claims the kickback was a legitimate business expense, as if he had been haggling with tribal Afghanis (see "Kickback Story Irks Symington," by John Dougherty, on page 12).
But Symington can no longer hide behind his misleading statements and a compliant press.
When You Scamps Get Together, You're a Regular Sewing Circle
Symington's fast-and-loose dealings are precisely the terrain the United States Attorney, the FBI and a federal grand jury are already exploring. Now the bankruptcy lawyers get their say. More attorneys are going to be talking more trash about Fife Symington than at any time in his life.
Not only can the $10,000 kickback be fully reviewed in the public bankruptcy hearing, but creditors can retrace the steps of the secret grand jury probe to the extent that both investigations focus upon financial fraud.
The details of the explosive "Ivan Memorandum," in particular, stand to see the light of day in bankruptcy court.
This Was Divine Intervention. Do You Know What Divine Intervention Is?
The "Ivan Memorandum" was a gift to me from an angel. It is a 15-page, single-spaced reconstruction of the interrogation of Symington's executive secretary, Joyce Reibel, by the FBI and prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's Office.
At the end of January 1994, Joyce Reibel was summoned before the federal grand jury. Before that appearance, government investigators questioned her thoroughly.
This "Ivan Memorandum" was drafted by an attorney, one Ivan Mathew, who represented Reibel during her ordeal. In the memo, he lays out the government's line of questioning, as well as Reibel's answers. The "Ivan Memorandum" is the only peek the public has had into the secret federal investigation, and it is a devastating look at the way Fife Symington conducted business.
It is absolutely clear from the prosecutors' cross-examination of Reibel that they suspect Symington of sending out different financial statements for the same time period to various lending institutions; in English, that's white-collar felony fraud.
"She was then asked if for the same dates, there are different financial statements in the folder. She indicated yes," reads the "Ivan Memorandum."
Reibel told the investigators that Symington did not explain the changes he made in these overlapping financials. She also admitted that they kept a secret code of this paperwork.
Do You Want to Hear My Fox Force Five Joke?
Reibel offered a hilarious cover story to explain this dubious coding.
The secretary said Symington was concerned lest his current financials be leaked during the gubernatorial campaign. Unfortunately, this alibi did not explain the coded financials from before his political candidacy.
Have you ever sat around a table with a bunch of U.S. attorneys and FBI agents who specialize in white-collar fraud and tried to explain why your ordinary-as-hell financial statements look like some mofo Rosetta stone?
Has your secretary? Oh, You Were Finished? Allow Me toRetort.The prosecutors were blunt and to the point. They accused her of covering up.
"The government informed Ivan Mathew," wrote Reibel's attorney, "that they believe Joyce had more detailed conversations with the Governor regarding the appropriateness of the numbers in the Financial Statements and schedules."
The feds also said they believed "[f]inancial statements were coded prior to the campaign." We Should Have Shotguns forThisKind of JobThe "Ivan Memorandum," though written in deadpan lawyerese, cannot disguise the atmosphere in Symington's office.
Reibel told the prosecutors that she only worked on the financials in the dead of night, after hours. No one, not even the company's chief financial officer, saw the loan applications. Only Fife himself filled out the real estate schedules. It's just the two of them, sitting across his desk from each other.
Sounds like an up-and-up deal to me.
The government investigators grilled Reibel about numerous areas of concern. Fife could not even state his income correctly on the financial statements the feds possess.
Apparently, he made himself look richer than he was by inflating his income.
The prosecutors repeatedly pinned Reibel on Symington's wages. Though they produced financial statements of Symington's for 1987 and 1988 that claim he made $200,000, Reibel admitted that he was never paid that much. She also admitted she had the W-2s that showed exactly what Symington's salary was.
It was a sorry performance. Whatever the explanation, you'd think Gomer and his gal Friday could at least get the easy part right, like making sure your W-2 lined up with your financial statement, before you tackled the hard stuff like moving New Guinea to Camelback.
I'll Have the Durward Kirby. Bloody.
Before they finished, the government agents ate Joyce Reibel's lunch. They asked her about mortgages that don't appear on Symington's financials, mortgages that appear at less than full value, and a $300,000 debt listed on one loan application but missing from another.
The prosecutors accuse Symington of forgetting that he is the guarantor of a $4 million debt."I can't imagine an innocent explanation for this," said one bankruptcy attorney who agreed to review the "Ivan Memorandum" for me, but who wanted no part of being identified with criticism of a sitting governor.Reibel does manage an innocent explanation for a question about Symington's listing of securities.
"The government then asked her about the 1987 stock market crash and how come the numbers were not reflected to accurately reflect dollar value," wrote her attorney.
In other words, the government suspected Symington of inflating the value of his stocks and securities.
Reibel laid the blame on the accounting firm of Coopers & Lybrand. I Ain't Eatin' Nothing Ain't Got Sense Enough to Disregard Its Own Feces. The accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand was mentioned repeatedly in the "Ivan Memorandum." In fact, Reibel admitted to the prosecutors that the senior partner, John Yeoman, coached her before the interrogation. Yeoman was also the finance chair of Symington's campaign. He served, too, as a conduit for Symington's Big Brain on Bread, George Leckie, during a mighty embarrassing public pantsing, Project SLIM. It was only after the firm won this specific state contract that the boys at Coopers were found out to be such porkers.
Symington had called on his accounting firm, through Leckie, to set up Project SLIM, a program the gov claimed would trim the state bureaucracy, and cut costs, by dismissing government workers. What Project SLIM also did was pay off his accountants.
Coopers reaped millions of dollars in contracts to oversee Project SLIM--but then paid $725,000 of it right back to the state to end a bid-rigging investigation.
The way the Project SLIM bid-rigging scandal came to light was pure Pulp. The accounting firm came under scrutiny only because it tried to screw one of its senior bean-counters out of his commission on the SLIM deal.
The spurned accountant went postal on them. Before he was done squawking, Coopers & Lybrand not only paid the fine for fixing the Project SLIM contract, it had to promise the attorney general never to behave as though it were rigging bids again. Which is supernatural.
Here was Coopers & Lybrand, subverting the very essence of good government, getting fat on a crooked multimillion-dollar state contract, yet it was such a glutton that it refused to split the booty with one of its own. Like a swine or a dog, there wasn't so much as stink left when Coopers & Lybrand executives got done stuffing themselves.
That's why they get paid the big dollars.
These were the same boys who helped Symington and Reibel with the financial statements. Comforting, no? I'm Sorry. Did I Break Your Concentration?You would think that after Project SLIM, after Southwest Savings and Loan, after the Mercado, the governor's bankruptcy would trigger cries of outrage, particularly from the state's largest daily.
You would be wrong.
It's as if the hundreds of millions of dollars in savings and tax dollars that have been squandered by Fife Symington and his bankruptcy are interrupting someone's heroin nod Sticking Your Tongue in the Holiest of HoliesAll Fife Symington had to do to finesse the state's largest daily newspaper was to give Chip Weil a foot massage.
After the governor took the Arizona Republic's publisher to breakfast, the paper opinion pages told us that we must put the bankruptcy behind us and think of the good done by Fife Symington.
Now, why hasn't some editor thrown Weil out a four-story window?
Channel 12 accompanied the announcement of Symington's insolvency with a glowing account of all the things that are swell about Arizona.
It is true that the terrible summer heat is finally gone. It is also true that the single most eloquent man in Arizona, Charles Barkley, is, at long last, back. And the Super Bowl is coming to the Valley in January. Phoenix is hip; it's Amsterdam.
But I don't need the press to tell me the desert is cool.
Last Sunday's Republic did not have a word about the governor's mishaps on the cover or inside the 200 pages of the paper of record. Instead, the Sunday Republic led with a story on the front page about all the celebrities who have homes here.
Didn't anybody notice that there was a financial cadaver on the ninth floor of the statehouse?
When I read all this puffy pulp that ignores what's really going on, I think of Common Cause spokesman Quentin Tarantino, who said: "I don't need you to tell me how good my gourmet coffee is. ... You know what's on my mind right now? It ain't the coffee in my kitchen. It's the dead nigger in my garage." Which One You Want to Do First? IAin't Fer Sure Yet.The silence of the press is not entirely unexpected. In the movie Pulp Fiction, Marcellus and Butch are terrorized by a couple of sick hoodlums who bind the two victims in leather restraints prior to selecting whom they will sodomize. The only dilemma: The two rednecks, Zed and Maynard, can't decide whom to bugger first. The media have been shackled and treated in much the same way by Symington's handlers.
In one legendary episode, John Dowd, the governor's lead overweight lawyer, in concert with a publicity stooge for Symington, provoked a mano-a-mano, let's-step-outside encounter with the brassiest reporter on the governor's beat, the Mesa Tribune's John Dougherty--who now writes for us. Dougherty's then-editors responded by yanking him off statehouse coverage.
Dowd spanked the press with threats of legal action and demands for retraction and correction like the leather master he is. At one point, I tallied 19 press paddlings by Dowd; the victims included the Washington Post, MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Institutional Investor, the Arizona Republic, the Mesa Tribune and New Times. I passed out from the pain before I could finish the count.
Bring Out the Gimp. The Gimp's Sleeping.
Well, I Guess You Just Have to Go Wake Him Up, Won't You? Someone finally woke up the chairman of the Democratic party in Arizona, Sam Coppersmith. You would expect Sam to have something to say about the bankruptcy and the kickback in the Mercado deal. After all, Symington is a Republican, and the laborers and carpenters who saw their pension funds go south in the Mercado deal are mostly Democrats.
He allowed as how the $10,000 kickback wasn't such a big deal, after all, and maybe New Times was barking up the wrong tree.
You have to understand that Sam was perched in the tree when he said this.
Sam Coppersmith was the lawyer on the Mercado deal. He represented the felon who is doing three years in a federal joint for taking kickbacks from other developers.
This is not to say that I suspect that Coppersmith was in on the kickback. Far from it.
"One Term" Sam was never so clever, or possessed of enough leverage, that anyone would consider bribing him. He was only the twit who tidied up the Mercado deal while the governor and the corrupt labor trustee raided the pension funds.
He's typical, though. When Democrats park ciphers like Sam Coppersmith in the chairman's seat, it is only consistent with their choice of Eddie Basha to run against Symington in the last election. Ten Times More Charming Than Arnold on Green AcresCongresswoman Pat Schroeder labeled Ronald Reagan the Teflon president because none of his foibles stuck. But I'll tell you something: Reagan looks like a mucilaginous Shell No-Pest Strip compared to the governor.
Symington is Casper the Ghost.
Prosecutors have not been able to lay their hands on him.
And everyone else says, Ghost? What Ghost?
Because the press was hunkered down to avoid Dowd's shelling, the only hope that Symington's disgraceful business record would be discussed was the gubernatorial race of 1994. While the local press is notoriously timid, its members are glad to quote someone else venturing an observation.
But when the Democrats fielded an opponent, it was Eddie Basha. He refused to discuss Symington's hosing of the pension funds, the sacking of the S&L, the Esplanade, the Mercado.
Basha insisted on running for the highest office in the state based on his charm. He is the charming, baldheaded grocer who owns a chain of supermarkets.
Well ... how the hell charming can any one grocer be? Ezekiel 25:17It is one thing for the local press, Sam Coppersmith and Eddie Basha to go in the tank.But I am curious about what labor will do.
Time was, you did not steal or cheat a working man out of his wage. Someone would go medieval on your butt with pliers and a blowtorch. Symington's ancestor Henry Clay Frick was notorious for his role in America's bloodiest labor strife, the Homestead strike of 1892. One of the steelworkers shot and stabbed Frick's entrepreneurial behind.
In a right world, you cross a man on his money and the vengeance of the Lord is upon you. Things are not entirely different today. When Butch cheats Marcellus out of his money in Pulp Fiction, there is hell to pay."If Butch goes to Indochina, I want a nigga hiding in his rice, ready to pop a cap in his ass," Marcellus tells an assistant, and we, the audience, do not flinch. Man has a point.
Symington's tactics are particularly galling because he and his wife, both of whom personally guaranteed the loans from the unions, are loaded.
It's Legal, but It's Not 100 Percent Legal
I know that Symington has declared bankruptcy. And I saw the pitiful listing of his assets in the daily papers; a wedding band, a single watch, a couple of cheap suits.
But the truth is, Fife is sitting on top of a $750,000 Frick Trust with securities locked up in the Mellon Bank.
Ann Symington has her own trusts as a beneficiary of the Olin Chemical fortune, and, by all accounts, her wealth overwhelms his.
Legally, these trusts are shielded from the creditors.
But ethically and morally, you would think that these two scions would use their positions of inherited privilege to work out a repayment plan with the pensioners, instead of jetting off to Europe.
Hey, I thought it was the Republicans who were always waving their index fingers in your face about personal responsibility.
Finally, you have to ask yourself if the trust shields are 100 percent legal. If the Symingtons obtained the pension fund financing through fraud, because of kickbacks or bogus financial statements, the trusts may be vulnerable to creditors.
Now I'm Definitely Not Going to Tell You. It's Been Built Up Too Much. What a Gyp!
In the bankruptcy hearing, scheduled to begin at the end of the month, creditors will review Symington's financial records. And with the allegations of fraud, the creditors have a real sword in their mitts. They can go over the "Ivan Memorandum" line by line. Areas that seem confusing can be cleared up.For example, don't we want this passage explained by Symington?"Next, she (Reibel) was shown (by the prosecutors) a real estate schedule pertaining to 12/31/89. She was asked if Symington typed the lines decreasing net worth from $15 million to $7 million and subsequent $11 million to $4 million (Exhibit 4). Ms. Reibel stated that she does not recall noticing these entries and that she never thought anything about these entries. Then she was asked about Symington's net worth being $23 million negative. She also stated that her job was typing and that she oftentimes did not ever consider what she was typing." Well, of course we want this passage illuminated. And let me tell you why.
According to her lawyer's account in the "Ivan Memorandum"--and he is no Rudyard Kipling of hyperbole--Reibel began her interview with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI by describing her lofty status within the Symington Company. So when Joyce responds to this particular question toward the end of the interrogation by saying she was just a typist, common sense makes me pause and pop a TicTac.
Because God is good, I, too, have a copy of one of Symington's 12/31/89 financial statements. The real estate schedule I have does not show a net worth of $11 million. Or $4million. How many financial statements for 12/31/89 are there? Just asking.And I'm not asking all hard-eyed and huffy like the FBI, because I am sure Le Big Mac has a reasonable explanation. You know what the funniest thing about a tycoon's financial statement is? It's the little differences. I mean, he's gotthe same shit in his portfolio you have inyour home mortgage file, with a few exceptions.Example.
In your financial statement, you probably left the line "art" blank. Maybe you've got some posters, but nothing serious.
In his bankruptcy filing, Symington claimed he had no art. But in one of his 12/31/89 financial statements, the one I have, Fife said he personally owned a quarter of a million dollars' worth of art.
In the "Ivan Memorandum," Reibel told investigators that both Fife and Ann owned extensive art collections.
Where'd it all go? Hiding assets because of a pending bankruptcy is a Gomer no-no.
Did Fife give his art to Ann?
That's a good bankruptcy-court question.
In the Esplanade deal, records show that Fife was paid, or took commissions of, nearly $8 million. Since it's my understanding that Symington seldom used his own money on his developments--his investment in the Esplanade was $213--where'd all those millions go?
That $8 million wasn't paper profit. It wasn't some phony, unrealistic developer's appraisal that made you look richer on your balance sheet than you actually were. That was all hard, cold cash.
Where is it?
Now, there is a chance that Symington will be able to avoid answering the hard questions.
It's simple, really.
Lawyers for the pension fund at the Mercado could lay it all out for Fife and put it to him: Why go through this house of pain? Cut a deal with us; give us some of your wife's money and we'll look the other way.
Stranger things have happened. Jack Rabbit Slim's Twist Contest Dirt was the dance in Arizona in the '80s. Everyone was twisting the night away in limited partnerships, and the trophy, a killing in land speculation, was always the next song up on the jukebox.
You can't imagine how often lawyers, bankers, developers and accountants told me as I looked at Symington's paper-legs investments: Everyone did it. We all did it. I did it.
One financial-industry attorney recalled the time he told a room full of bankers that if the real estate market ever wobbled, a part of the land-cycle roulette that always comes up, everyone in Phoenix was going down.
"For a long moment, there was a chilly silence in the room. Everyone just stared at me," said the lawyer. "Then they all started laughing."
Another gentleman told me, without a hint of irony, that he saw $10,000 bribes used to cook deals all the time.
In 1988, a cover story in Barron's said the wild and woolly real estate business in Phoenix was going to collapse of its own excess. The writer was viciously attacked by local civic leaders. It marked the last flatulent bellow of those old rous in French cuffs: Gary Driggs, Karl Eller, Keith Turley and Gene Rice.
It was a cynical time, but here's the bottom line: None of the S&L gangsters used their own money. They did it with your savings accounts, your passbook certificates and your pension funds.
As a line of business, it was cooler than a briefcase full of a white, powdery substance.
And Fife's bloody palm prints are all over the satchel.
Oh, he's washed his hands, all right, but he didn't use Lava. The towels at Symington's feet look like a stack of maxipads.
First Symington screwed the people who banked at Southwest Savings. Then he conned the construction workers out of their pensions.
Once he was elected governor, he targeted state employees with Project SLIM. (Funny, I don't ever hear tell about clerks at the Department of Motor Vehicles traipsing through Europe on either their trust funds or our state monies. I'm sure it happens; I just don't hear about it.)
Fife Symington has made a career out of mugging the working man. It's genetic with him. And before we're done, mark my words, this bankruptcy of his will turn out to be one more hustle.
He is beautiful.
He is Le Big Mac.
Who's Zed? Zed's Dead, Baby. Zed'sDead.
It is a mind-altering thing to wake up in the morning and be able to read, in the NewYork Times and the Washington Post, 35,000 words by the Unabomber, and yet not be able to get a straight answer from Fife Symington or the local press about the governor's highly pungent bankruptcy and the squandered millions in pensioners savings. The Arizona Republic's publisher, Chip Weil, thinks it is our civic responsibility to let Fife Symington skate. Not everyone agrees.
Morley Safer from 60 Minutes is in town to interview Symington. Come one Sunday down the line, there will be a watch up the governor's butt, ticking.
Whatever happens from here on out is a matter of details. I know what Fife Symington did.
And me, I don't dig on swine.
He's past tense in my book.
Years from now, my children will read about the real estate plundering and looting of the S&Ls in the '80s the way I read about Henry Frick when I was a kid.
And my boys will ask questions.
They'll say, "Who was Fife?"
And I'll tell them.
"Fife's dead, baby. Fife's dead."--Lacey
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