August 2010 / Issue No. 57

Viewing the news through the lens of alcohol and other-drug addiction

It's good to be back in full swing following "tax season". We hope you enjoy this issue. You may wish to take the opportunity to look at our books at or for gift-giving ideas. We’re proud of the fact that 39 of 51 collective reviews at give the books five-star ratings (and you are welcome to add to those reviews!).

Welcome to the Thorburn Addiction Report. Each month in which we interpret the news through the lens of alcohol and other drug addiction. Each month we bring you several sections, including:

  1. Top Story of the month along with runners up, persons under watch, enablers, disenablers and more
  2. Review or Public Policy Recommendation of the month
  3. Dear Doug in which a recent letter to "Dear Annie" or other "help" column is rewritten, with responses given from the unique perspective that alcohol or other drug addiction best explains the misbehaviors described
  4. Alcoholic Myth-of-the-Month
  5. Alcoholic Antic-of-the-Month, usually where someone deserves the Darwin Award, but lived.

There is something for everyone!

© Doug Thorburn. All rights reserved.

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Governing Under the Influence: the City of Bell and its Grotesque(ly Overpaid) City Manager, Robert Rizzo

In a classic 1987 article entitled “Governing under the influence; Washington alcoholics: their aides protect them, the media shields them,” Steven Waldman wrote what was, for the time, not only a tell-all on Washington, DC alcoholism but also one of the most insightful and perceptive exposés ever written on the subject. Among the gems: “Reporters usually fail to cover the drinking problems in Washington officials….’I knew several alcoholics,’ says
Richard Bolling, former chairman of the House Rules Committee and a recovering alcoholic, ‘and they all were in important positions.’” He identified a number of former congressmen as alcoholics, including Representatives Wilbur Mills (chairman of the powerful tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee), Hale Boggs (majority leader), Carl Albert (Speaker of the House) and L. Mendel Rivers (chairman of the Armed Services Committee), along with Senators Herman Talmadge (chairman of the Agriculture Committee), Russell Long (chairman of the Finance Committee) and Estes Kefauver, who was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate for President in 1956. Waldman accurately observed, “The more important a public official is, the less likely he will be forced to confront his problem drinking.” This is another way of saying what Marianne E. Brickley, recovering alcoholic and ex-wife of Michigan’s GOP Lt. Gov. James Brickley, said: “the higher the person’s social status the more that person is protected by others.” I would expound further: the higher the social, business, financial or political status of the addict, the more enablers have to lose if the secret leaks out because enablers have their own positions of power, prestige, income and wealth tied to the alcoholic. Waldman explained that “A key part of a staff member’s job is to cover up for the weaknesses of his boss. That’s as true for the senile congressman as it is for the alcoholic; the difference is that a senile congressman will not become more senile because of staff help.”

You may wonder what all this has to do with
Robert Rizzo, but stay with me. The problem of enabling often occurs because the enablers are themselves alcoholics. Waldman wrote this was particularly true of journalists during the 1960 presidential campaign. He cited journalist David Broder as recalling that “if one journalist was too smashed to file [a report], another reporter would cover for him….” Waldman explained, “Journalists, in turn, ignored the ‘private foibles’ of the candidates” creating, as Broder put it, “a cozy, comfortable arrangement all around.” Adding to the multiple reasons for pervasive enabling surrounding politicians, Waldman observed that “the reporters who are most likely to know if a congressman drinks too much are the ones who can least afford to alienate him.”

Waldman cites staffers who claimed that “heavy drinking” had not noticeably affected the work of several politicians. While it may not appear that way to the uninitiated, a closer examination may find instances of manipulation or other power-seeking behaviors that seem “normal” in the lives of politicians. Waldman astutely points out that “alcohol[ism] may be impairing abilities and performance in subtle but important ways without causing a blatant failure to discharge ‘public responsibilities.’” In one of the most insightful comments ever by a journalist, Waldman suggests that “heavy, regular drinking should be reported—even if it never occurs during session and even if there’s not definitive proof that it affects job performance.” He would probably agree with me: of course it does.

As mentioned in one of the many clues to alcoholism listed in
Drunks, Drugs & Debits: How to Recognize Addicts and Avoid Financial Abuse (page 128), one of the implications in Waldman’s article is alcoholics often hang out with other alcoholics. Just as addicted children seek out other addict kids, alcoholic adults often look for other alcoholics who they can control and who may “look worse off or use more addictively than themselves and serve as a sort of cover for their own use.” As a result, a “culture” of alcoholism may result. This could explain much that goes on in the halls of legislatures at all levels of government. It probably explains the city of Bell, California, which was, as we will see, manipulated into grossly overpaying a number of its top officials. Keep in mind that recovering alcoholics admit that when they use they excel at lying, cheating, stealing and manipulating for personal benefit and they do whatever it takes to inflate their egos by wielding power, which often manifests in financial abuse of others, including taxpayers.

The history of the salary of
Bell’s City Manager Robert Rizzo, who is likely the highest paid city manager in the country weighing in at $787,637—with annual 12 percent pay raises—is suggestive of the sort of gross manipulation of rules usually rooted in alcoholism. It began with corruption in a nearby city also consisting largely of immigrants, South Gate, when its treasurer, Albert Robles, engineered a recall in 2000 that won him a majority of allies on that town’s city council. “South Gate” soon became synonymous with flamboyance, corruption and, as The Los Angeles Times journalist Hector Becerra aptly put it, “politicians gone wild.” Robles and his cronies gave themselves exorbitant pay raises, retaliated against any and all critics and almost forced the city into bankruptcy. Three years later, outraged city residents ousted Robles. A year later, after having been “accused of threatening to kill political opponents while exuding bravado and charm during his tenure” (see the December 2004 TAR), Robles was charged with plundering $12 million over five years from the city, the entire annual budget of which is only $28 million. He was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 10 years in 2005.

One of the council members who helped the beleaguered citizens of South Gate was Hector De La Torre, who went on to become an assemblyman in Sacramento, where he pushed for laws to help keep municipal governments honest. One of these was a law that limited compensation for part-time city council members of a city the size of Bell (population 38,000) to $400 per month or $4,800 per year, with another $150 per month for each board and commission members serve on. It took only three months for the Bell city council to figure out a way to circumvent the law: such limitations on payments for sitting on boards and commissions don’t apply to “charter” cities, a status the Bell city council found a way to opt into. All they had to do was hold an election in which a majority voted for charter city status.

The special election the city council called must qualify as one of the best kept secrets ever. The measure passed 336 to 54, with roughly 4% of registered voters casting a ballot, mostly absentee. Obviously, most residents in Bell knew nothing about the election, including a woman who told reporters she has “a master’s in public administration and a bachelor’s in urban planning.” Some council members insist the measure was not motivated by a desire to increase salaries, but couldn’t cite any other reasons to become a charter city. Surely, then, it’s a coincidence that
four of the five council members now earn over $100,000 per year for part time work—mostly by showing up for board or commission meetings, which are often adjourned after about a minute or two. As De La Torre understatedly put it, “The timing of [the special election] is clearly circumspect.” Adding to the breathtaking hubris, the city council approved a resolution in 2008 mandating that only council members could serve as commissioners on boards.

Now, I wouldn’t want to accuse the city council of committing a quid pro quo crime, but let’s take a look at the odds. They are paid ten to twenty times what they could earn on just about any other city council in the country for the work they do. They agreed to pay
Assistant City Manager Angela Spaccia $376,288 per year, or some 70% more than Los Angeles’s Antonio Villaraigosa makes as mayor of a city of 3.8 million. They also brought in Glendale, California’s police chief and more than doubled his salary to $457,000 per year, which is 50% more than Los Angeles’ Police Chief Charlie Beck earns. All this in a city in which the median household income is almost one-third less than that of the rest of Los Angeles County and where special and direct assessments levied on property owners by its municipality are almost 3.5 times the countywide average and double the level of just four years ago, which results in an overall property tax that’s about a third higher in Bell than for the average same-price home in L.A. County.*

What might have precipitated this culture of apparent corruption and grandiose spending? Fortunately, while journalists usually won’t out politicians, an occasional and luckily-timed DUI sometimes does. Robert Rizzo, 56, was arrested in March 2010 with a blood alcohol level (BAL) of .28 percent after crashing into a mailbox (his Jabba-style mug shot is here; oh, ok, some might think Soprano-style). There are few if any instances of a non-alcoholic, especially a 56-year-old, drinking to a level that is more than three times the legal per se driving limit and still able to stand on two feet, much less being able to navigate the controls on a motor vehicle. In other words, we really can’t get any closer to 100% odds of alcoholism without the addict admitting to his disease, which usually occurs only after several months of recovery. Where there’s one alcoholic in what appears to be an instance of corruption, there usually are others. Because alcoholics are the world’s most convincing salesmen, crime, corruption and unethical behaviors do not require alcoholism in everyone involved. Alcoholics frequently talk others into committing behaviors they wouldn’t normally commit. However, with at least eight people involved in what appears to be blatant corruption, the odds are there is more than just one alcoholic, including at least one or more sitting city council members. In other words, we might surmise that Robert Rizzo’s alcoholism is just the tip of the ice cube.

I may write more on a related topic, pensions, in an upcoming
Wealth Creation Strategies, my client newsletter available at Unfortunately Mr. Rizzo will be eligible for a $600,000 + yearly inflation-adjusted pension; fortunately, since he’s an alcoholic and appears in pictures almost as wide as he is tall, taxpayers might not be on the hook for as long as actuarial tables suggest. Still, you and I would have to have an estimated $12 million in our IRAs and 401k’s to guarantee a pension this outsized in the form of a single-life annuity and probably close to $16 million to purchase one that increases with inflation. Rizzo at one point justified his salary, claiming he could earn as much in the private sector. How many real people make $800,000 per year and then retire with a mega-million dollar IRA? The people who set up a system allowing this sort of absurd payout were not thinking straight—in fact they, along with the City Council of Bell, may also have suffered from grandiosity and confabulated thinking, which is far more likely a result of longstanding alcoholism than from all other causes combined. Both the alleged crime and its aftermath, then, are likely the financially tragic results of alcoholism for which the residents of Bell and the citizens of California will unjustly pay the consequences for what could be decades.

The general property tax rate is 1% of value. The average direct and special property tax assessment rate in L.A. County is .16%, while Bell’s rate is .55%, or almost 3.5 times greater. However, Bell’s overall combined rate of 1.55% is not quite one-third greater than the 1.16% median combined rate for L.A. County.


Runners-up for top story of the month:

Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, the jury for whose corruption trial is sadly still deliberating as of the date of release of this issue of TAR. Blagojevich, whose misbehaviors were first chronicled in the January 2009 TAR Top Story, with brief snippets in the May 2009 and July 2010 editions, is the subject of a story by Jonathan Franzen in the July 26, 2010 The New Yorker titled “What About Me?” Rarely has the alcoholic’s theme song “Me, me-me-me, me me me me me me me-me me” (sung to the tune of the well-known traditional Mexican song “Cielito Lindo”) rung so true. Franzen reports that Blago became “increasingly erratic” during his second term as governor and that when there was important legislation to discuss, he often would sneak off or hide in the bathroom. One former state senator who served briefly in his cabinet said Blago was “off his rocker…He was yelling and screaming and being irrational [and his proposals] often didn’t make sense.” It will be interesting for the addiction-aware to follow Blago’s future history.

Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who is being held responsible for ruining the re-election chances for his mother, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick. His guilty plea to two felony charges of obstruction of justice after he perjured himself in a police whistle-blower lawsuit was followed by additional jail time for hiding assets that should have gone toward $1 million in restitution to Detroit. He is now awaiting trial on charges of tax evasion and mail and wire fraud in federal prison. Every once in a while, taxpayers get lucky and then act appropriately. A family dynasty of three decades that many thought could last another few decades is over due to the sort of improper spending, abuse of public funds and wild partying that few engage in without benefit of alcoholism.

Under watch:

In an early 2009 piece on white collar crime,
The Economist magazine suggests there may be some truth in something those who have read my books would predict: “Many [Club Fed and other white collar] prisoners suddenly discover, post-conviction, that they had a drinking problem….” I would add that those who don’t figure this out might benefit from greater introspection. In the spirit of The Economist’s discovery, a recent story follows for which the evidence of alcoholism is in the behaviors.

Rep. Laura Richardson
, D-Long Beach, cleared of wrongdoing in her home foreclosure fiasco by the House Ethics Committee. However, keep in mind the members of the Ethics committee are—politicians. Also, you will find in the fine print of the Ethics committee report:
  • Richardson called a Washington Mutual lobbyist to help stop her foreclosure.
  • Washington Mutual executives went into crisis mode, figuring WaMu would be perceived by the press as a “bumbling company.” Shortly after, the company was bankrupt.
  • While earning $174,000 yearly she needed a loan modification to stay current.
  • She claimed to earn $12,000 per year in rent on her San Pedro property and “didn’t know” that her mortgage broker committed fraud by forging rental agreements, even though the property was never rented.
  • Her credit score is 575, 582 and 603 from the three major credit rating agencies in a state, California, in which the average credit score is 690.

Now I think that the first, third and fourth items are each enough to be charged with wrongdoing, but that’s just me. You can find more on Richardson in the Top Story of the July 2008 issue of TAR here.

Alcoholic victims of the month:

Two people died and four were wounded before a gunman, Robert Reza, turned the weapon on himself at a fiber optics plant in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Reza’s live-in girlfriend, who had told co-workers she feared for her safety, was among those injured in what was obviously an extreme case of domestic violence. The unsurprising aspect to the story is Reza’s criminal history included at least two arrests for DUI; the surprising part is this was reported in a newspaper article on the tragedy, albeit in the 15th (and last) paragraph. As I point out in Drunks, Drugs & Debits, stories like this should lead off with “he had the disease of alcoholism, which took form in horrifying misbehaviors leading to death and injury, specifically….”

Disenabler of the month:

Yet another 911 call by a kid, this time from a 12-year-old who reported that her mother,
Jamie Hicks, 48, was “not speaking properly” and was weaving into other lanes while she was driving on Interstate 84 in New York, with the kid and a 10-year-old in the vehicle. Hicks was arrested at 6 p.m. and charged with DUI and driving drunk with children in the vehicle— at a BAL in excess of .16 percent. One might suspect she started Happy Hour a tad early, before picking up the kids.

Quote of the month:

Former heavyweight king Mike Tyson, 44, telling Details Magazine, “The first stage of my life was just a whole bunch of selfishness. …I wasn’t half the man I thought I was. So if there’s a big plan now, it’s just to give—it’s selflessness, caring for the people who deserve it. Because I think I’m a pig.” In a case of self-financial abuse orders of magnitude greater than any non-addict is likely to have ever committed, Tyson burned through roughly $300 million in career earnings before declaring bankruptcy in 2003. He admitted, “I think I was the most medicated boxer in the history of the sport. If I was going to medicate, I’d just smoke a joint….I was on f*ing drugs, thinking I was god.” Now, if he’d only realize that a few of his favorite people were also on f*ing drugs and thought they were gods, and get rid of those tattoos of Mao (the barbiturate addict who murdered at least 30 million Chinese) and Che Guevara (the alcoholic who wantonly murdered innocents while helping the likely-amphetamine addicted Castro gain power over his victims in Cuba) he might stay on the right path.

Sometimes, it takes an addict:

Several months ago it dawned on me I had not heard from my dear Internet friend
Fr. Jack Shirley for some time....and I was afraid of what I'd find so didn't look. In writing this issue of TAR, I ran across one of his wonderful posts to me (he supplied me with a number of ideas and leads over the years). It was a terrific personal story on enabling by family physicians: "I remember over 40 years ago while I was in Detroit I went to my family physician and complained about my difficulties drinking beer. He told me to switch to Scotch, which I did. I now had my doctor's approval." Such was the recovery humor of someone I consider a true gentleman and friend, who I shall sorely miss. Fr. Jack died long sober. A belated so long, Fr. Jack.

And goodbye, too, to
cartoonist John Callahan, who was paralyzed at age 21 from the chest down after a day of drinking in 1972, when he and a man he met at a party went bar-hopping; his new drinking buddy crashed Callahan’s VW Beetle into a utility pole at 90 mph. (If it weren’t for alcoholism, we’d never know a Beetle could get to 90 mph.) Adding to the mounds of evidence attesting to the idea that nothing will stand between an addict and his drug, he kept drinking for another six years before getting sober. While he drew caricatures as a kid, he didn’t begin selling cartoons until the early ‘80s, after which he became internationally syndicated in newspapers and magazines. Everything was fair game, including the disabled, the homeless, fat people and feminists. His best known cartoons included a beggar in the street with a sign that reads, “Please help me. I am blind and black, but not musical,” and one in which a sanctimonious woman glares at a small man and says, “This is a feminist bookstore! There is no humor section!” The politically incorrect among us especially will miss you, John Callahan.

Note to family, friends and fans of the above: the benefit of the doubt is given by assuming alcoholism (they are either idiots and fundamentally rotten, or they are alcoholic/other drug addicts—which would explain the misbehaviors). If alcoholic, there is zero chance that behaviors, in the long run, will improve without sobriety. An essential prerequisite to sobriety is the cessation of enabling, allowing pain and crises to build. Thus far, many have done everything they can to protect the addict from the requisite pain, making these news events possible. The cure for alcoholism, consequential bad behaviors and, ultimately, tragedy, is simple: stop protecting the addict from the logical consequences of misbehaviors and, where possible, proactively intervene.

DUI offenders must test breath before driving, but will it work?

Under a pilot program set to begin in July in Los Angeles County and three other California counties, motorists convicted of DUI will be required to install an ignition-interlock device that will prevent vehicles from starting if a BAL greater than .03 percent is detected after drivers blow into a tube connected to the machine. It’s an interesting idea, but recall that addicts are brilliant in getting around obstacles, especially those designed to prevent them from using. There are three ways I can think of to placate the machine so the car starts, and if I can think of three any alcoholic worth his vodka can probably think of ten more. One, bring along a friend, who may be on something other than booze. Two, the DUI offender keeps a low BAL and supplements with or substitutes other drugs. Three, drink after starting the car, which can be done via the “paper bag” method or the “fill the windshield wiper compartment with vodka and jimmy a hose through the dashboard, which can be sucked on with the wipers on” method. So, while I’m not averse to trying this method of reducing DUIs, I question whether it will stem DUI repeats by any appreciable level. May I be proven wrong.

A far more effective method of stopping DUIs is to prevent the offender from drinking—ever. Society has a right and, in fact, an obligation to stop a person from using who has proven his or her inability to use safely. There is no perfect method, as proven last month by
Lindsay Lohan’s re-arrest for violating parole with an ankle bracelet, which doesn’t test for other drugs. Ankle bracelets, which detect practically any level of alcohol in the system, should be supplemented with regular and random blood and urine tests for other drugs for at least a period of months if not years after release and as a condition of parole. We will not only greatly reduce DUIs, but also cases of domestic violence and all manner of other criminal behaviors.

Click here to check out Doug's movie reviews.

Image I need an appointment to see my granddaughter. Help!

Dear Doug:

After having babysat my granddaughter for much of the past three years I was no longer needed for the job. Now my daughter is doing everything she can to keep my grandchild from me. She either doesn’t return my calls or says she is too busy; when I can see her, it’s now by appointment only. My daughter seems to be directing all her anger and hatred towards me by denying me access to my only grandchild. Is this common? Are there any support groups for grandparents with similar problems?


Estranged from my grandchild

. . . .

Dear Codependent,

Other columnists would tell you that parents sometimes use access to their children to punish their parents. They would suggest you have a toxic relationship that obviously needs healing and that professional help should be sought to help mediate.

Such columnists would be skirting around the likely real issue which, whenever there are serious family problems, is alcoholism. This disease fuels anger and hatred by causing distortions of perception and memory, in particular “euphoric recall,” which makes the alcoholic view everything through self-favoring lenses. This, in turn, causes the person to lay blame on others for any personal or professional problems. Parents, because they are supposed to love their children unconditionally, are terribly convenient targets.

You might want to pick up a copy of How to Spot Hidden Alcoholics: Using Behavioral Clues to Recognize Addiction in Its Early Stages for confirmation—if my assessment is correct, you need to stage a professionally-aided intervention. You just might save several lives and relationships.

By the way, you may also benefit by looking inward. While I feel the odds are remote, it’s possible you are the addict from whom your daughter wants to protect her child. Without more information this possibility cannot be ruled out.

(Source for story idea: Ask Amy, July 27, 2010.)

[Joran] van der Sloot’s past (sic) wasn’t known to be violent.”

So wrote
Frank Bajak in an Associated Press piece on the 22-year-old who was arrested for the murder of Stephany Flores, whose body was found in a Peruvian hotel room with her neck broken, one eye dangling from its socket and her bloodied face so battered her brother didn’t recognize her in the morgue. The gruesome murder was committed five years to the day after Natalee Holloway disappeared in Aruba, where van der Sloot was the main suspect and whose father, who died in January, was a judge. In supporting his headline, Bajak cited the fact that “the only case in the past five years where he’s known to have caused bodily harm was in January 2008,” when he threw a glass of red wine at a reporter who called him a liar. Bajak isn’t looking at the whole picture.

Addicts can be on their best behaviors for years at a time if that’s what it takes to get what they want (in this case, continued freedom from shackles). Like
O.J. Simpson, van der Sloot knew he had to be on his best behavior if he hoped to avoid apprehension for a heinous crime after (not) committing one for which he couldn’t be convicted. Except for the one reported act of violence and, oh, by the way, an attempt at extorting funds from the Holloway family in exchange for telling them where they could find the body of the girl he “didn’t” murder, he appears to have managed to stay off the legal radar. (God only knows how many unethical acts, or illegal ones for which he knew he couldn’t be caught, he engaged in over the last five years, but I digress.)

Bajak made two glaring errors in his analysis. First, he simply didn’t go back far enough. In the
July 2005 TAR one of the “runners-up” for Top Story was: “The possible culprits in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway after a night out at Carlos’n’Charlie’s on Aruba, particularly the ‘hard drinking, violence-prone’ Joran van der Sloot, who is reported to party every weekend and pick fights while drinking ‘for no reason at all.’ Unfortunately, if there are tracks, alcoholics can be superb at covering them.” Considering he was so hard drinking and prone to violence that even journalists reported the fact when van der Sloot was a teenager, he did a darn good job of covering his tracks and staying off the radar. But as I predicted then and, too, in 1995 when Simpson was acquitted, as long as addicts keep using it’s only a question of time before their behaviors lapse in a way that is likely to again attract the attention of law enforcers.

The second error in Bajak’s thinking gets to the myth: Bajak’s implication is if a suspect wasn’t known to be violent then it’s a surprise when he is. Once we know that a person uses alcohol or other drugs addictively, it shouldn’t be. We know he’s capable of anything. “Anything” includes murder. Properly stated, Bajak should have written (and correcting for the poorly constructed English): “Joran van der Sloot wasn’t known to be violent recently, but since he is a known addict, we knew he was capable of heinous crimes. Unfortunately, he appears to have committed one and, this time, got caught red-handed.”

Story from “This is True” by Randy Cassingham, with his “tagline:”

“UNDEAD II: Tracy Durham, 48, had a party at his place in Peoria, Ill. ‘I was drunk,’ he says. He won't say who was over for the party, but he remembers telling a friend his girlfriend was ugly. As Durham took another swig from his bottle, he remembers hearing a ‘pop’, but he went back to his party, then slept off his drinks. The next day a neighbor noticed he was limping, and came over to ask why. ‘It looks like you've been shot,’ the neighbor observed. Durham was, through his thigh, and hadn't even noticed. ‘If it were a big, gaping hole, like from a .45, you'd probably take note of that sooner,’ said Peoria police Lt. Vince Wieland, who guessed the wound was caused by a .22 caliber. ‘Depending on how much [alcohol they've consumed], it's not unusual for them to not notice until the next day.’ (Peoria Journal Star) ...Though the ones shot with a .45 tend to wake up dead the next morning.”

My quip is this story suggests one advantage to alcoholism: you don’t feel pain. Of course, without the alcoholism you probably wouldn’t tell a friend his girlfriend is ugly. So, you’d never have the opportunity to feel the pain. Or to hang out with people who might be capable of shooting someone over an insult.

Oh, what was “Undead l”? If you haven't already subscribed to Randy’s newsletter (the free one at least, or the paid one I get, with twice the stories), I highly recommend it—and you’ll find out:

(Story and tagline from “This is True,” copyright 2010 by Randy Cassingham, used with permission.)


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