Was County Judge Jim Foster Really the Disaster His Own Party Claimed. Maybe, Maybe Not.
Despite its stunning view of downtown Dallas, the patio outside the bar at the Belmont Hotel in Oak Cliff is lifeless. That may be because it's a Tuesday night, but had Jim Foster's political fortunes been different, there could just as easily be music blaring, drinks flowing, and politicos and supporters packed shoulder-to-shoulder as the 66-year-old Foster accepted his second Democratic nomination for county judge.
Instead, Foster's March 2 primary election watch party consists of a small group of friends who realize that his only hope of keeping his job is forcing a runoff with challenger Clay Jenkins. Foster has managed to grab only 21 percent of the early vote, placing him a distant third to Jenkins' 51 percent and former Dallas City Council member Larry Duncan's 28 percent. The mood is somber as votes trickle in, but Foster says he's optimistic that a strong showing in the northern precincts will close the gap between him and Duncan and place him in a runoff with Jenkins.
Of course, anyone who's followed Foster's career as county judge would hardly expect him to be much of a political prognosticator. Seemingly from the day he took office in January 2007, Foster has been treated in the media like Dallas County's version of Chauncey Gardiner, Peter Sellers' character in Being There, a dull-witted gardener tossed accidentally into the political limelight. Foster, according to that version of his story, lucked into office on a Democratic tide and quickly sank over his head.
Lately, however, there's been another take circulating about Foster: That he's really an intelligent, courageous leader who stepped up to battle corruption even if that meant cutting himself off from his own party. The people most keen to spin that version of Foster's story are two of his Republican cohorts on the commissioners court, Ken Mayfield and Maurine Dickey.
"Sometimes there are people who are unlikely that show up at a particular window of time when they're there to do a job," Dickey says cryptically, "and it turned out to be, in the long view, a serendipitous thing for Dallas County because I don't think anybody would have done the job that needed to be done."
Unfortunately for Foster, neither Mayfield's nor Dickey's praise proved helpful in an election among Democrats. Still, the nagging question remains: Is Foster really the doofus commonly portrayed over the past three years, or did he manage to do some good in office?
The answer: maybe both.
But before the postmortem begins, decency requires the patient to be declared dead. Time of death is just after 10 on election night, as the wave of support from the north that Foster expected never found its way ashore. When the final votes are tallied, Jenkins falls just 114 votes shy of the 50 percent required to win outright, necessitating an April 13 runoff with Duncan. Foster offers no concession speech.
The party's over, and the judge prepares to head home. But before he goes, he pauses for a chat with the Dallas Observer and commits a typical Foster-ism. His loss, he says, was caused by voter fraud. At least half of the mail-in ballots were fraudulent, he claims with precision if not substantiation, and that "was enough to affect the outcome of the race." He refuses to name those behind the fraud but says he'll be handing that information to the FBI and U.S. Attorney's Office, stressing that the perpetrators should be put behind bars. "Eventually, some of them will be," he boldly predicts. "You can go to the bank on that one."
Well, hold that trip to the bank. Turns out the final election results show that even if Foster had received all of the mail-in votes cast for both Jenkins and Duncan, it wouldn't have made any difference in the race. When presented with this fact two days later, Foster pauses and then awkwardly explains that his statement was made before all the votes were counted. He restates his concerns about voter fraud while admitting that it couldn't have factored in his third-place finish.
Suddenly, he's attributing his downfall to standing up for what's right and making decisions based on the best interests of the citizens instead of "what someone else wants."
"This county is rife with corruption," Foster says. "Unfortunately, and I'm sad to say, almost all of it is within the Democratic Party. I wish I didn't have to say that, but it's true."
It's a shotgun blast of a claim, the sort that's typical of the man who led a controversial, gaffe-prone investigation into the alleged corrupt behavior of two county constables, usurping the district attorney and muddying a potential criminal case with politics.
Foster may be heading out the door, but that case will likely be his legacy for good or ill.
Foster became involved in local Democratic politics in the late '70s while working as a plant manager for Johnson & Johnson, and his first experience was nearly enough to drive him away. He joined the Democratic Progressive Voters League, an organization formed in 1936 to advocate for the rights of blacks that evolved into a group focused on promoting minority candidates—like Foster, who's gay—for elected office.
Foster served as a member of the league's screening committee and recalls witnessing an altercation in the basement of the Warren Avenue Christian Church between future County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Justice of the Peace Charles Rose. (Neither held office at the time.)
"It was a bloody mess because he punched Rose in the nose, and blood was squirting everywhere," Foster says.
The incident caused Foster to stay away from league activities for a couple days, but he ultimately returned because of his passion for politics. He became the owner of an alarm company in 1979 but continued to stay involved in politics through various organizations including the Oak Cliff Democrats and other "scattered clubs that fell by the wayside."
After attending the Dallas Baptist University Police Academy, Foster obtained his peace officer's license in 1988 and became a reserve deputy constable in 1990. That same year, he started his second company, Paramount Alarm Systems, which provides home security and fire alarm installation and monitoring.
In 1992, Foster took his first stab at running for elected office, filing for Precinct 7 constable. The lifelong, committed Democrat ran and lost as a Republican. Foster slumps in his chair and his voice takes on a defensive tone when he's asked to explain why he ran in the GOP.
"I was never a Republican," he says in his office on the second floor of the former Texas School Book Depository. Foster says he didn't take the race seriously and spent only $300 on his campaign, but when pressed says he ran on the Republican ticket to gain name recognition.
"I was still pretty green to politics," he adds.
The failure of 1992 was more than a decade behind him when Foster aspired for a higher office in 2004, this time as a Democrat. He tried to parlay his limited experience as a reserve deputy constable and security company owner into becoming county sheriff. He made the primary runoff that election, but Sheriff Lupe Valdez destroyed him by a 73-27 margin.
Two years later, Foster would run for county judge. Why county judge? As with many things concerning Foster, there's two takes on that.
In the original story, Foster said he filed at the last minute after waiting around party headquarters to see if someone—anyone—else would step forward. These days, he offers a slightly tweaked version of the story that would lead to him being dismissively dubbed "the accidental judge."
Now, he says he wasn't merely waiting for any Joe Blow to stroll in and take him off the hook. He claims there was a former state representative with strong name recognition who planned on running. Foster says he was merely the backup plan, though he won't name the no-show candidate.
The party hardly rallied behind Foster's campaign, and he raised a paltry $8,400. County Democratic chair Darlene Ewing, however, claims the party's efforts got him elected, and she says he's been abandoned because he deserted the party by not attending Democratic functions after his election.
"I'm not talking about doing favors for the party," she says. "I'm talking about recognizing who put you in that office, and so you show up at clubs, and you make appearances when people ask you."
Foster claims he didn't have a choice. During two separate training sessions conducted by Seana Willing, executive director of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, Foster says he was told that he's restricted from appearing with candidates for office because it could give the appearance that he's endorsing those candidates, which is prohibited by the SCJC.
"I cannot get the Democratic Party to understand that I'm not permitted to do that," he says in frustration. "How can I build up the party if I risk being removed from office for going out and appearing at someone's fund-raiser?"
Well, not quite. Willing says outright endorsements are prohibited, but the commission does not restrict county judges from attending political events or fund-raisers.
So, Foster doesn't quite grasp the intricacies of the SCJC's policies, but that hardly explains his broader reputation for being something of a dummy, especially when you hear assertions from friends and acquaintances that he's really an intelligent (if inarticulate) man. How did the public perception of Foster go downhill so fast?
His surprise win in November 2006 over Republican County Judge Margaret Keliher partly explains it. His victory was gauged a fluke, part of a sweep that saw Democrats win 41 of 42 contested races that year. Foster was a political blank slate then, and he kept handing the media a piece of chalk so it could write bad words. He dodged the press. He tried to keep public records secret. He threatened this paper's advertising.
"He was, frankly, embarrassing," says Democratic precinct chair and former Dallas City Plan Commissioner Neil Emmons.
In June 2007, the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News described Foster as "the primary beneficiary of straight-ticket voting"—which is the paper's polite way of saying he didn't deserve the job. The News' editorialists were annoyed that Foster ducked out on a meeting to decide whether to oust Constable Mike Dupree, who may—or may not—be Foster's friend, depending on whom you ask. Foster first claimed he had to be at a funeral, and then called in sick to the meeting, which led to it being canceled.
Two months later, Observer columnist Jim Schutze referred to him as "Judge Jim 'The Accident' Foster" after seeing "block"—without any details about what the time was blocked out for—as a recurring entry in Foster's monthly calendar and discovering that he had been spending time at his alarm company ("In and Out," August 9, 2007).
Foster's bad press continued, as the Observer on its news blog, Unfair Park, in October 2007 revealed his schedule of public appointments and appearances, which took two months to obtain. Foster had requested that the Dallas County District Attorney's Office write a letter to the Texas Attorney General asking if his schedule was eligible as an exception to the Public Information Act because releasing it posed an "imminent credible threat" to him. (Shortly after the blog posting was published, Foster was in the Observer's offices, threatening the paper's editor and managing editor that he had unnamed supporters who would go after the paper's advertising unless we could "work together.")
The blog posting suggested that he wasn't doing much other than attending weekly commissioners court meetings on Tuesdays and visiting the Oak Cliff Lions Club on Wednesdays.
In a recent interview, Foster says he was concerned about an "ambush," but then he suggests that ambush is probably not the right word, replacing it with "security concerns."
"I just didn't feel that the public had the right to know about that, but the AG says otherwise. I'm completely in favor of open and transparent government," he says, contradictorily.
Foster's reputation for cluelessness grew. According to Bob Johnston, Foster's executive assistant for the first eight months of his term, Foster may have never figured out how to do his job, which is actually an administrative position. While other county judges in smaller Texas counties preside over criminal and civil cases in addition to their other duties, the Dallas County judge oversees a $900 million budget and approximately 7,000 employees. Johnston prepared a script for Foster to read during meetings, he says, because Foster was focused on other issues, such as redecorating his office. "That consumed his thoughts for a good while."
Foster, not surprisingly, regrets that he ever kept one of Keliher's executive assistants on his staff. Not replacing Johnston was "the biggest mistake I ever made," Foster says, and Johnston "was a majority of the problem" during the first year of his administration. He claims that Johnston maintained an allegiance to Keliher, hoping that she'd attempt to reclaim the position.
Even Foster's eventual supporters had their doubts about the new county judge. Dallas lawyer John Barr was one of only three contributors who donated to Foster's campaign in the weeks following his election. This earned Barr a spot on Foster's transition team, where Barr at first sized up Foster thusly: "I just thought, 'What a goofball. This guy is out to lunch.'"
Barr's opinion of Foster would later improve, especially when Foster became a key player in keeping the International Inland Port of Dallas on track. The IIPOD is a massive rail, trucking and warehousing hub in southern Dallas County that's expected to bring more than 60,000 jobs to the area.
Foster would have less luck winning over one of the most outspoken and politically influential members of the commissioners court, 25-year veteran of the court and fellow Democrat John Wiley Price.
Admittedly, the two got off to a poor start, with Price endorsing Keliher and six other Republicans in 2006.
Early on, though, any ill will stemming from the endorsement eroded, and the two were able to work together at the beginning of 2007. But it didn't take long for Price to sour on Foster. In May 2007, Foster voted against a motion by Price to allow property in DeSoto owned by billionaire Ross Perot Jr. to be included in a foreign trade zone for the inland port. Perot owns a competing inland port in Tarrant County called the Alliance Global Logistics Hub, and foreign trade zones offer vital incentives to businesses because foreign goods are not taxed or subject to customs tariffs while they are waiting to be shipped. Foster cites this vote as the moment at which his and Price's relationship suffered irreparable damage.
Although Foster allowed Price to mentor him early on, Commissioner Mayfield says the inland port became an issue on which Foster reached a tipping point and stopped following Price's advice.
"He diverged because he wanted to do what the right thing was to do for the citizens of Dallas County," Mayfield says. "And it took a great deal of courage to do that knowing what was going to follow: the wrath of Commissioner Price that he has no qualms about displaying at any time or any place."
Foster eventually found his footing by creating the first countywide Clean Air Task Force, ensuring that mentally ill prisoners at the county jail have access to medication, supporting a tax freeze for seniors and the disabled, assisting in the successful $747 million bond campaign to build a new Parkland Hospital and approving millions of dollars in funding for the beleaguered county jail.
He also became the decisive vote to keep the inland port moving forward when he opposed an 18-month master plan that would have stalled the project. Price favored the master plan, and Foster's opposition further soured their relationship.
But what perhaps will be considered Foster's crowning achievement or most colossal blunder came in September 2009, when he joined Mayfield and Dickey in hiring former FBI Agent Danny Defenbaugh to investigate Constables Jaime Cortes and Derick Evans for alleged corruption. The decision to team up with two Republicans in a matter that many Democrats viewed as best left in the hands of Democratic District Attorney Craig Watkins likely sealed Foster's fate within his own party.
Beyond political affiliations, however, there's the whole odd series of missteps and controversies that dogged Foster's handling of the case from the get-go. Take, for example, what should have been the investigation's grand moment, its big reveal, the day Defenbaugh's first report was released to the public.
On February 15, the day before early primary voting begins, Peggy Lundy, Foster's senior assistant and a former Republican consultant, is uneasy.
She had a couple hours earlier called local media outlets announcing a 4 p.m. news conference at which Foster would release and discuss a report by Defenbaugh regarding the employment practices of Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes, who the commissioners had appointed in 2007 after Mike Dupree resigned amid allegations of corruption and sexual misconduct toward employees.
It's been a rocky road to get to this point. Defenbaugh was hired by the commissioners court to investigate the behavior of both Cortes and Precinct 1 Constable Derick Evans. Foster, Mayfield and Dickey supported the investigation in large part because they believed Watkins wasn't taking the matter seriously. Price objected strenuously.
Foster says when he first started receiving complaints from county employees about Cortes and Evans, he forwarded the information to the county's human resources department. When he was told that human resources would not move forward, he turned the affidavits and other information over to the public integrity unit of the District Attorney's Office.
After sending 12 affidavits to prosecutors in one day, Foster says he arranged a meeting with Watkins to find out whether he had planned to launch an investigation. "He looked me straight in the face and said, 'I can't talk about it.'" One month later, Foster says the two had lunch, and he asked Watkins when he planned to act on the information that he had been receiving. "He said, 'I can't discuss it.'"
It was at that point that Foster took his greatest leap. Watkins wouldn't tell Foster whether he was investigating the constables—Watkins says he can't ethically discuss pending investigations—so Foster decided to take the reins himself.
It was a curious move, both legally and politically. It suggested a lack of trust and communication between the county's chief administrator and chief law enforcer. It also put the county judge, who does not have a law license and is a judge in title only, squarely in the middle of a potential criminal investigation.
Foster's decision to meet with Mayfield and Dickey to determine the best course ensured that the entire investigation would have a political taint. "I said, 'Something has to be done. This is not right,'" an unapologetic Foster recalls.
A month before Defenbaugh was hired, The Dallas Morning News had revealed that Cortes and Evans were using Dowdy Ferry Auto Services almost exclusively for towing vehicles. The two constables towed more cars in a two-year span than several large municipal police departments in Dallas County, yet they provided no oversight over the process. Therefore, no record exists of how or if owners were notified of their vehicles' whereabouts or what happens to vehicles deemed abandoned.
The decision to hire an outside investigator was controversial to begin with, but Foster's next big step in the case was either courageous or a monumental blunder. At approximately 5 a.m. on October 13, Foster ordered county staff to make a copy of Cortes' computer hard drive so Defenbaugh could have a forensic expert analyze it.
There was no subpoena, no search warrant, just the county judge acting on his own dubious authority. All hell broke loose.
Domingo Garcia, one of Cortes' attorneys, attributed Foster's early-morning maneuver to his being upset over Cortes replacing his supposed friend, Dupree. Darlene Ewing says Foster was acting like a judge even though he's not one from a legal standpoint, and if he found anything on the computer, he's probably given Cortes' attorneys "a wonderful basis for excluding evidence."
A judge would eventually rule that county commissioners could not view the contents of Cortes' hard drive, but by February 15 all those controversies are in the past. Now, Peggy Lundy is getting ready for Foster to deliver his bombshell—Defenbaugh's report on Cortes.
Lundy scrambles to get copies of the document to hovering reporters, rushing up and down the stairs leading from Foster's office to the chambers of the commissioners court. She tells reporters the document arrived only moments ago, and she'll have to send it to everyone via e-mail. Foster and Dickey walk down into the chambers, but Mayfield is noticeably absent.
Foster and Dickey begin without Mayfield, but it's apparent that nothing of substance will be discussed because no one has had a chance to read the 92-page report, which included 23 sworn affidavits from deputy constables and other county employees. Foster notes his concerns about allegations of official oppression, tampering with a witness, retaliation and deprivation of an employee's rights under the cover of law; however, he's unable to provide any examples.
"I just know that on the front page it highlighted the concerns this investigation revealed pertaining to these issues," Foster says when asked by a reporter. He dismisses a follow-up, claming he'll only take one question from each reporter. Foster struggles to stay afloat.
Larry Duncan says it was no coincidence that the press conference took place the day before early voting, and he points to Lundy as choreographing the event. "We need to stomp out corruption wherever and whenever it rears its ugly head. That's what we need to do, but we don't need to turn it into a three-ring circus."
The botched press conference was a colossal misstep as the report contained numerous allegations against Cortes—if only Foster could have detailed and discussed them. But by the time he or anyone else could digest the report, it was already yesterday's news. It was classic Jim Foster. He just couldn't get out of his own way while armed with the report that could have secured much-needed votes at the polls. "I guess hindsight's 20-20, and I'm nearly going blind," he says.
Defenbaugh, who worked without subpoena power and forwarded any criminal evidence to the FBI and district attorney, found that Cortes may be abusing his power by accepting bribes from Dowdy Ferry and mistreating employees. The report also alleged that Cortes forced his deputies to campaign for him while on duty and contribute money to his campaign by selling raffle tickets.
Foster subsequently released Defenbaugh's reports on Kwanzaa Fest and Constable Evans. The Kwanzaa Fest report claimed that approximately 49 deputy constables serving under Cortes and Evans worked at Kwanzaa Fest, an annual nonprofit event held at Fair Park and chaired by Commissioner Price. The officers earned more than $15,000 for the work from Dallas County. However, Kwanzaa Fest is not a Dallas County-sponsored event, and it did not contract with the county for the security services provided by the constables. The document also says at least 22 deputies were "intimidated and coerced" to provide security at Kwanzaa Fest and didn't receive compensation. In a press conference held shortly after the report was released, Price said all security personnel at Kwanzaa Fest worked on a volunteer basis and no one was paid.
"I refute all of what I consider to be baseless and politically motivated charges that have surfaced at the hands of the accidental county judge," Price said.
The Evans report was much shorter than Cortes' at 16 pages, and it centered mostly on allegations that Evans abused his office by requiring his deputies to fund his campaigns by selling raffle tickets or buying the tickets themselves. Several employees also claimed that Evans intimidated them into providing security at community events such as Kwanzaa Fest without pay.
Cortes and Evans both ran for reelection in the March 2 primary. Evans resoundingly defeated three challengers with 58 percent of the vote, while Cortes faces an April 13 runoff against Beth Villarreal. Neither faces a Republican challenger in November. Commissioner Price has donated to both their campaigns, and powerful Democratic State Senator Royce West, a mentor to District Attorney Watkins and the largest contributor to his campaign, serves as Evans' attorney.
Darlene Ewing and other Democrats view Foster's decision to investigate the constables as undermining Watkins and as a political witch hunt by Mayfield and Dickey, who manipulated Foster into doing their bidding.
"If you don't think the district attorney is doing it properly, then call the Texas Rangers. Call the attorney general," she says. "But you don't decide you're going to become the caped crusader of corruption."
The Texas Office of the Attorney General, however, asked Watkins in August 2009 to let the OAG assist in an investigation of the constables and was rebuffed. And following the release of the Cortes report, Eric Nichols, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, made another plea to Watkins.
"We reiterate our offer of the resources of our Criminal Justice Division in the investigation and potential prosecution of any violations of law that may have occurred, whether involving potential criminal prosecution and/or removal proceedings," Nichols wrote on February 23.
Jerry Strickland, spokesman for the OAG, says Watkins has not responded.
John Barr has been close to the investigation, serving as an attorney to both Foster and Defenbaugh, who were targets of lawsuits by Watkins and Cortes. Barr says county employees started complaining to the FBI in 2008, but the agency struggled to establish jurisdiction, placing the matter in the hands of Watkins. Yet Barr claims that only one of the employees interviewed by Defenbaugh had been interviewed by anyone at the District Attorney's Office.
"Why hadn't the DA's investigators talked to these people before if they were doing an investigation?" Barr says. "Why hadn't they talked to 'em? Where is the investigation?"
In a lawsuit filed by Cortes on February 24 asking for Foster's removal from office, he alleged that Foster's conduct toward him is motivated "by animosity resulting from what happened to his friend Mike Dupree."
Foster says his motivation is simple. None of this is about politics or payback. It's about doing what's right. For more than a year, these employees have sat in his office and complained to Foster, no longer just fearing for their jobs, but fearing for their personal wellbeing and the safety of their families. "I'm the person that they were going to, and they're still coming to me," he says. "And I wish I weren't in the middle of it, but I am because they don't know where else to go."
Ironically, Foster could have just as easily left the investigation to Watkins. Although Watkins has refused to confirm or deny whether such an investigation exists, both Foster and Defenbaugh testified in front of a Dallas County grand jury in October 2009.
And if that wasn't enough to satisfy skeptics that Watkins was doing his job, an investigation of the constables by the District Attorney's Office was confirmed on January 27 when Lieutenant Howard Watson, one of Cortes' senior officers, was arrested and charged with bribery, sexual assault, official oppression, tampering with government records and the unauthorized use of two motor vehicles. However, Dallas lawyer Bill Wirskye says the investigation by Watkins has taken an inordinate amount of time, and he credits Foster with making the issue public. Wirskye, a former chief felony prosecutor with the DA's office, also praises Foster for providing Watkins with information and forcing his hand with such an "unprecedented" move.
"Whether [Watkins] wanted to or not, or whether he was already doing it or not, he in a sense was left with no options other than to investigate it," Wirskye says.
Like seemingly everyone else, Sharon Boyd didn't give Foster much of a chance when he took office. In fact, she didn't give him a single day on the job before making up her mind.
"Our new County Judge Jim Foster is as hapless in his new position as a goldfish without water," she wrote January 1, 2007, on her blog, DallasArena.com. "Judge Foster might be a nice guy, but he's not qualified to serve as County Judge."
Boyd, a staunch Republican and community activist, admits that she bought the anti-Foster PR because she didn't know much about him, but once the two met, she found him to be a Southern gentleman. And throughout the inland port and constable matters, she says, he's been fearless without being confrontational.
"What we need from elected officials are more people like Jim Foster," she says. "We don't need a rocket scientist. We need somebody with courage. We need somebody with integrity. Somebody who's going to help the little guy."
Foster has been instrumental in issues in Boyd's West Dallas neighborhood, she says, including assisting in the removal of rogue bars through his position as the county hearings officer for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. But she's most appreciative of his efforts to hold Constable Cortes accountable.
"What does it say about all of the other elected Democrats in this county when only Jim Foster has the courage to stand up and say, 'This guy is a dirty crook'?" she says.
While Republicans like Mayfield, Dickey and Boyd make strange bedfellows with Foster, it's someone like Bruce Jones (one of the few attendees at the Belmont Hotel on March 2) that casts the most doubt on Foster's public persona.
One week after Foster's defeat, Jones, a board member of the Taiwanese Chamber of Commerce and U.S.-China Chamber of Commerce who speaks nine languages, invited Foster over to his house for dinner to cheer him up. Jones says the two listened to Johann Sebastian Bach and discussed the different museums and artists of Europe. They also discussed some of Dallas County's history. After all, Foster wrote five books on the subject.
Jones claims Foster is misunderstood because he's an old-fashioned Southern gentleman who speaks slowly and carefully. That, perhaps, dismisses far too many of Foster's blatant gaffes, but in any event, Foster's success will likely be tied to the fates of Cortes and Evans. "When there's a fight against corruption, somebody has to take the first bullet, and it was him, and he's taking it with dignity," Jones says.
Although the Defenbaugh investigation is complete, Foster pledges to continue his crusade against corruption as he serves the final nine months of his four-year ride as county judge. And when it's all over, he plans on spending more time with his partner of four years (whose name he wishes to keep private), taking photographs and traveling.
"My legacy, when it's over and done with, will be that I stepped to the plate and said, 'We're going to clean up Dallas County government,'" Foster says. "And I'm the first person that has ever dared to tackle it."
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