Feature: Wednesday, July 2, 2003
‘WEhave paid our dues.’
Unsettled in White Settlement

The town was alreadyin upheaval.\r\nThen the Irish Travellerssettled in.\r\nBy Betty Brink &Dan McGraw

By Betty Brink and Dan McGraw

It was the spring of 2002, and only three of the 33 projects approved two years earlier by White Settlement’s Economic Development Corporation for the town’s new Veterans Park were finished. When civic watchdog Wayne Feeler received a comparison of projected versus final costs for the three completed projects, the retired CPA knew something was very wrong.

Costs for a 10-foot-square ticket booth for Little League games had ballooned from $5,500 to $40,175. A small dressing room for umpires had expanded into an “umpire’s lounge,” with $16,000 worth of amenities added, including an entertainment center, couches, soft lighting, and art work.

And a memorial to the town’s veterans had more than doubled in price, from $28,000 to $66,368.

The 72-year-old accountant, with years of experience in auditing municipalities, was most troubled by the fact that none of the cost changes had been brought back to the EDC board for approval. The corporation’s money comes from the city’s half-cent share of the sales tax. Its president and CEO, “the man where the buck stopped,” Feeler said, was White Settlement City Manager Gus Pappas.

For a couple of years, Feeler and a handful of other good-government types had been keeping an eye on Pappas and the council that had hired him in 1998. “He is very charismatic, but his resumé showed he’d had several positions as a city manager in small towns in Texas and never stayed more than two years,” Feeler said. “I didn’t think that was a good sign.” The citizens group began showing up at council meetings demanding to know who approved the cost overruns at the park. When they got no answers, they organized. The three projects, they believed, might just be the tip of a cost-overrun iceberg.

They were right.

Feeler and his colleagues, now a coalition of about 80 residents known at city hall as “The Mob,” raised enough hell to force an outside audit of the park development. What the auditors found was even worse than Feeler’s troops had feared: Every project was over budget. New projects had been added without board approval. Auditors reported that bidding laws had been violated, record-keeping discrepancies were rampant, and funds from other city accounts had been transferred to the park project without knowledge or approval of the city council.

With the audit results in hand, the coalition, which had earlier helped elect a reform mayor, campaigned successfully this spring for two new council members who promised to clean house. The new council’s first order of business in May was to fire Pappas. Now the citizens group is pressing for an investigation into possible misappropriation of taxpayer dollars and bidding irregularities under the former manager’s stewardship.

So, are the reformers breathing easier? Not yet.

While the three-square-mile blue-collar enclave embedded in Fort Worth’s far West Side still reels from the EDC scandal, other political and social changes are taking place that could unravel the reforms overnight, the newly empowered activists say. Among them: the emerging political visibility of some nomadic newcomers who have been wintering in White Settlement’s travel-trailer and RV parks for the last five years or more.

They are a branch of the secretive, traditionally non-political and rootless Irish Travellers. But this clan seems to be changing the rules. Instead of pulling up roots, they are putting them down, building houses, buying the properties where they park their travel trailers and RVs through the winter, and registering to vote. Their political allies? Pappas and his supporters whom Feeler and crew just helped remove from office.

No one ever said democracy isn’t messy.

It fell to Mayor James Ouzts to order the September 2002 audit that would be Gus Pappas’ downfall. Ouzts, an executive with Kimberly-Clark, has lived in White Settlement since 1972. He served on the council for five years before being elected to the top job in the spring of 2002, defeating 20-year incumbent mayor and Pappas supporter James Herring with The Mob’s help.

Pappas did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.

“When the citizens began questioning the spending at Veterans Park, I wasn’t comfortable with the answers from the senior staff,” Ouzts said. Pappas, whose city manager position also by law made him chief officer of the development board, told citizens in one meeting that he didn’t know who approved the cost overruns at the park. Then in another public forum he blamed the unchecked costs on unnamed city employees. That didn’t wash with either the mayor or the citizens. “Pappas should have had the answers,” Ouzts said. It was time, the mayor said, “for an independent set of eyes” to look at the park project finances.

To Mob members — Feeler, General Services Administration retiree Ron White, financial-note broker Donna Douglas, self-employed painter Bobby Adian and his wife Barbara, the willy-nilly expenditures of taxpayer dollars with no accountability represented incompetence or worse.

“Either way, we had to get the whole picture,” White said, and the only way to do that was through an independent audit. For the citizens, he said, trying to find out what was going on with the public’s money was like “eating an elephant, one bite at a time.”

Pappas told Feeler the EDC board had OK’d the change orders. But when Feeler pressed for proof, none could be found. “Gus finally told me the changes had been approved by the ‘employees of White Settlement,’” Feeler said, laughing. “Now that’s a broad brush.

“This was taxpayer money,” Feeler said, “and state law demanded accountability, but we could find no accountability.” Worse, he said, the city council had abdicated all responsibility to Pappas.

Under the citizens’ continuing pressure, the council hired a Granbury public accountant firm — George, Morgan and Sneed — to audit the city’s overall spending with instructions to conduct a separate scrutiny of Veterans Park.

Few questioned the need for a new city park when the idea came up in 1995. Sue Miller, lifelong resident of White Settlement and a Pappas supporter who served six years on the council, said Veterans Park was initially funded with a $525,000 grant from the state. That money was spent for excavation work, ball diamonds, a pond, playgrounds, and basic landscaping. In May 2000, the EDC board approved adding another $175,000 of its own money to the park’s capital budget to complete a list of new projects submitted by Pappas.

“There was no specific budget for each project,” Miller said. “It was more like turning over money to a contractor and saying, ‘We have this much to spend and here’s a list of what we want. Start at the top and work until you run out of money and then we’ll see if we can find more.’”

David Griffith, a current EDC board member, said Pappas was given “free rein” by the board to spend the money allocated for Veterans Park as he saw fit. In fact, the audit found that Pappas gave the board a list of the 33 specific projects, each with a proposed cost, which the board approved.

Miller said she was “as conscientious with the taxpayers’ money as I was with my own,” but found no problem with such a loosely controlled plan to spend taxpayer dollars. “As long as the EDC board approved the list,” she said, “it was OK.” Ouzts, Miller said, had always “been after Gus, didn’t like him, and wanted him out.”

She trusted Pappas. “His specialty is finance,” she said — and most of the work was to be done in-house by parks and recreation maintenance people. “It wasn’t really like giving the money to a contractor.”

The audit, however, found that at least a dozen outside contractors worked on the park projects, all hired without bids being taken, in violation of the city’s bidding policy. The handling of at least one job violated state law, auditors said. In fact, since 1998, auditors found, the EDC had paid a total of more than $200,000 to 18 contractors on Veterans Park and other projects, in violation of the city policies.

The audit report showed the EDC board-approved plans for a wooden ticket booth had morphed into a concrete and metal building with air conditioning and bulletproof glass — built by an outside contractor.

The baseball umpires’ pit stop grew from a restroom, a dressing area, and small office into an “umpires’ lounge” with two restrooms, showers, lockers, medicine cabinets, and enough furniture and “décor” items to furnish a fair-sized living room.

The memorial itself, designed as a circular concrete walkway area with a flagpole, some shrubs, and live oaks, had grown to include $18,000 worth of “bench seating and decorative planters with drip irrigation” and a $5,000 retainer wall. One concrete vendor got the lion’s share of the work without submitting a bid.

By the time the auditors completed their report in January 2003, nine months after Feeler was alerted to the first cost overruns, 19 of the 33 original projects submitted by Pappas had been completed; most, the auditors wrote, were over the original budgets for each that had been approved by the EDC board. In all, the net cost overruns came to $173,466.

There was more. The auditors found an additional $111,185 worth of projects that were never approved by the board, but were nonetheless done with EDC funds — including a $35,423 minnow pool, dam, and pedestrian bridge, and a 750-foot chain link fence. The auditors noted that the fence was topped with barbed wire “even though both ends of this fence are not attached to anything. Anyone could walk around the barbed wire fence.”

The total cost of the completed approved projects and the unapproved additions came to $471,061.

In addition to the first $175,000 added to the Veterans Park budget from the EDC, the auditors found that, between January 2001 and January 2002, a total of $297,800 was transferred from various city accounts into the park account. The EDC also put in about another $52,000 during that period. There was “obviously lax oversight” of these transfers, the mayor said.

The auditors also found 187 discrepancies in invoice, check, and purchase order records, including purchase orders that did not match the amount in the general ledger, were back-dated, or changed without authorization. For some work, purchase orders couldn’t be found at all. Auditors detailed the places where policies were violated but didn’t point fingers at individuals.

EDC board member Griffith disputed all of the audit findings. “The cost overruns ... were anticipated,” he said. Everything that Pappas did, Griffith said, had the implicit approval of the board. “These auditors found discrepancies because they didn’t ask the right staff people for the documents. ... An auditor can find what he wants to find.”

Ouzts, on the other hand, was outraged at the findings. “I was not against Veterans Park,” he said, “but a ... building with an umpires’ lounge with those amenities, well, that doesn’t make any kind of sense.” The council, he said, was not aware of the additional funds that were being transferred from city accounts to the park’s budget.

With citizens demanding action on the audit findings, the mayor felt that the city manager had to go. At that time, however, Pappas supporters were still a majority on the city council.

When the audit results were released in January 2003, Feeler and his group began a campaign to get two new council members, Danny Anderson and Steve Thompson, elected. Both were as eager to clean up city hall as their supporters, Feeler said.

For Douglas, 50, it was a “true grassroots campaign. We worked from daylight ’til dark, knocked on doors, spent our own money, ran ads, wrote letters. We were determined to make government work for the people.”

The only real worries were the newly registered voters from the trailer and RV parks. The clan was publicly supporting Thompson opponent David Griffith.

During the campaign, two landowners spoke mostly for the Travellers: James McDonald, the recent buyer of two of the three mobile-home and RV parks in the city, and Rose Carroll, who bought the third one.

Neither, however, returned phone calls from Fort Worth Weekly. At McDonald’s trailer-park office, the manager, who identified herself only as a niece of Mrs. McDonald, said that McDonald and his wife had left town a few weeks ago on vacation and won’t be back until September or October.

Before the last election, while Pappas was still manager, McDonald and Carroll both had lobbied the city council to change its recreational vehicle ordinance, which then limited the time that RVs could stay in trailer parks to six months. The Travellers wanted a change that would allow “unlimited stays,” Ouzts said. McDonald, in a rare public appearance by a Traveller, even spoke at city hall, urging the change.

Pappas supported the Travellers’ request. So did Griffith.

Griffith, 63, a florist, said that he is a “long-time acquaintance” of the Travellers and knows James McDonald well. “I’ve done business with them all, even before they moved here,” he said, and always found them to be honest. About five years ago, he said, the clan moved to White Settlement from Haltom City. “I helped them find their way around city hall, sent them to the right folks to get permits and such. I wholeheartedly supported the ordinance. These are people who want to live here, be part of this community, to be able to vote and participate.”

The former council voted to revise the ordinance, giving the RV park residents permanency and a place of residence for voting purposes.

McDonald next sought a zoning change to expand one of his trailer courts into an adjoining 50-acre property he had purchased. Griffith said he also pushed for that change, because McDonald wanted to put in permanent mobile homes that would generate property taxes for the city.

During the election, McDonald’s clan supported Griffith, a Pappas backer.

“I would have never voted to fire Gus Pappas, that is correct,” Griffith said. “He has made White Settlement the envy of this area, financially.” Griffith said that under Pappas, the city has a healthy $52 million in assets, $12 million in reserves and only $10 million in debts. As for the Travellers’ support, “They came to me and offered” to help get out the vote for him. “I took it [their support.]. But none of them worked in my campaign or gave me any money.”

Griffith lost, in spite of a “significant turnout from the trailer and RV parks this election,” the mayor said. The winning candidates’ first order of business was to fire Pappas. And McDonald’s request to expand his trailer park was denied.

The new council is also keeping the spotlight on Pappas’ park spending. “We will continue looking until we feel that we’ve uncovered all the improprieties and irregularities,” Ouzts said. “What we had was a previous council that gave an extreme amount of discretion to the city manager, abdicating its fiduciary responsibility to its citizens.”

Feeler said he still has “many unanswered questions about how these money transfers took place” and believes state laws may have been violated. White and Bobby Adian said they have asked the city to open a full investigation to determine if criminal activity occurred.

“This is so smelly,” Adian said.

From its origins, White Settlement ought to be the most welcoming of towns to strangers in its midst. In the 1840s, a small colony of homesteaders staked out claims to land about 20 miles west of the army stockade known as Fort Worth. The pioneers were surrounded by seven Indian villages. Instead of killing the intruders and trying to run them off, the Indians welcomed them, local folklore goes, trading with the settlers and each sharing in the other’s bounty. The homesteaders called their colony the “white settlement,” a name that stuck.

For the next 100 years, White Settlement remained a small farming community of mostly Anglo descendents of the first homesteaders. Then came 1941 and World War II. Consolidated Vultee built an aircraft plant — quickly dubbed the Bomber Plant by locals — just northeast of the town, the army opened an airfield adjacent to the plant, and White Settlement boomed. By 1943, defense workers and military families had turned the farming town of 500 into an urban village of 10,000. Instead of cotton and corn, Rosie the Riveter, the Liberator Bomber — the weekly newspaper is still called the Bomber News — and blue-collars would define the town from that day forward.

Leonard Jeffrey is one of those blue-collar, working-class guys who gets his fingers dirty for a living. He fixes cars in his little automotive shop on Cherry Lane and sports lots of tattoos, long hair, a beard, and Harley Davidson t-shirts with the sleeves cut off. He’s not a part of the coalition of citizens who ousted Pappas, and he doesn’t look down on anyone. Having his business next to a trailer park is no big deal to him.

But the Travellers make even laid-back Jeffrey uneasy. Their newly paved trailer park is half-full of $60,000-plus trailers and new extended-cab pickups.

“I don’t know how to describe them, except maybe rich white trash,” Jeffrey said. “You’ve never seen nicer cars; you’ve never seen nicer trailers. But they are the strangest people I’ve ever seen. Nothing about them makes any sense. Don’t even try to figure them out.”

Jeffrey said he has found dozens of new pairs of jeans and other clothing — still with tags from the department store — tossed in his dumpster. He said he sees plenty of drinking and fighting. Wild kids, he said, come and go at all hours of the day and night. Two years ago, on New Year’s Eve, police confirm, the Travellers built a huge bonfire in their parking lot and danced around it.

“They’re very entertaining, I’ll give them that,” Jeffrey said.

Donna Douglas’ first encounter with the Travellers was less than entertaining, but instructive as to why the clan is viewed with distrust by some of White Settlement’s long-time residents

Last summer, a trailer park about a block from Douglas’ home was sold to a company owned by Rose Carroll, one of the matriarchs of the local Travellers clan, Douglas said.

For more than 20 years, she said, the trailer park had been home mostly to poor people, the elderly, and young single mothers, many living on welfare or disability checks. “It was run down, but it was clean and safe and affordable for these people,” she said. Some had been there for the entire 20 years. Then on July 1, 2002, before any of them even knew the park had been sold, the tenants were given notice by Carroll to vacate in 60 days. Most had no place to go, at least not quickly, Douglas said. Some owned their trailers but had no money to move them. Douglas spent the next month there, she said, trying to help the people find new places for their trailers or themselves, getting help through county agencies and charities and calling in the mayor.

“This was the cruelest thing I’ve ever seen,” she said. “The residents were crying, begging to be left alone.” One woman had a brain tumor. Another old man said, “I thought I’d die here.”

Douglas said she confronted Carroll as the park owner was telling the residents they had to leave. Outside the park, Douglas said, the new residents — Travellers — had all their new vehicles and RVs lined up waiting to take over the spaces. “I walked over to her,” she said, “and told her what she had done was wrong, if not illegal.” Faced with Douglas and Ouzts, Carroll agreed to give some residents more time to move, but didn’t allow any to stay. “She even gave one woman a used trailer and helped her pay for the move,” Douglas said, but the gesture didn’t soften Douglas’ opinion by much.

Today, the mobile-home park is filled with new travel trailers and RVs, all belonging to the clan of Travellers. “It looks better, of course,” Douglas said, “but that was never the point.”

White Settlement residents are also disturbed by some of the negative and violence-related publicity that Irish Travellers have brought to their town.

Last year, Madelyne Gorman Toogood, a sometime resident of the town’s trailer parks, was seen on an Indiana department store parking lot surveillance tape apparently beating her 4-year-old daughter, Martha, in their car. The scene was quickly spread across the country by news stories that identified Toogood as a Traveller from White Settlement. She was charged with felony battery to a child and last week was given a year’s suspended sentence. More recently, also in Indiana, Mark McDonald, another Traveller from White Settlement, was run over and killed by one of his sons driving a 2003 GMC extended-cab pickup. The son, Martin McDonald, has been charged with reckless homicide.

But the worst case by far, one that didn’t get the national publicity of the Toogood case but was carried in the local papers for weeks, occurred here on Jan. 2, 2000. That day, five young men died on Interstate 30 just west of Fort Worth when the brand-new extended-cab pickup they were driving flipped and became airborne, crossing the median and striking another pickup, roof-to-roof. The youths were killed instantly; the other driver survived.

When police tried to identify the bodies, they found a confusing set of driver’s licenses from Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, and Georgia, giving the young men’s ages as 15 to 20. Police who tried to verify the names and ages with the families were rebuffed. In truth, the five were only boys, aged 12 to 14; they were Irish Travellers, all cousins who lived in White Settlement.

For days, the media printed the wrong names and ages of the boys. The police had no luck in determining the true identities of the children until the funeral, when an undercover civilian with the Fort Worth Police Department attended the funeral and found the real names and ages from a funeral program. The handling of the incident baffled the Fort Worth Police Department.

“It was the strangest reaction to a fatal accident,” said Fort Worth Detective R.L. Wangler. “They were prepared to have those aliases in our investigation. After we found out what the true identifications might be, the county medical examiner took the unprecedented step of opening the casket to fingerprint these five kids, for the record, between the funeral and the burial. ... They would rather have us open up the caskets than cooperate with the investigation.”

The red pickup truck demolished in the accident, registered to Jane McDonald Jennings, the mother of the driver, was fully insured. The injured driver sued, but attempts to serve Ms. Jennings were unsuccessful. The insurance company settled the case out of court.

Fort Worth Police Department spokesman Lt. Jesse Hernandez said he knew of no effort to file child endangerment charges against the parents of the 14-year-old who was driving the truck with a forged license. “We couldn’t have gotten anyone to talk,” he said. “The parents said only that the boys took the truck without permission, and as far as we knew, they could have gotten the fake driver’s licenses from some kids who were turning them out in high school.”

There is some evidence, however, that the pickup truck crash, and now the Toogood case, may have changed the culture of the Travellers. Child welfare workers in Indiana wanted the Toogoods to stop traveling and put down roots. Now, their clan seems to be inclined to do just that in White Settlement. A local source who asked not to be named said that they used bank financing to buy the two trailer parks recently, as opposed to their tradition of operating on a cash-only basis.

Gene Thompson, the real estate agent who sold the Irish Travellers two of the White Settlement trailer parks, said he is aware that the group has a central trust fund. Other sources said the Travellers own their own RV factory in Indiana.

As to their origins, most historians agree that they are a distinct ethnic group that has lived in Ireland for more than a thousand years, where they roamed the countryside in covered wagons, lived by their wits, and camped by the road.

They began showing up in this country between 1845 and 1860, during the Great Potato Famine. Traveling by wagons, they specialized in horse and mule trade, selling scrap, painting barns. In the 21st century, their lives are not that much different, aside from the upgrade in technology. Instead of covered wagons, they drive “fifth-wheel” trailers, often 40 feet or more in length, with all the accoutrements such as washer and dryer, dishwasher, leather furniture, and air conditioning. Their work of choice these days is usually paving and driveway repair, as well as roofing and home improvement. They also buy and sell RVs for profit, according to many sources.

But are they scam artists, as many claim? Do they rip off old folks by selling them watered-down asphalt for their driveways? Are they shoplifters who take the stolen goods back for refunds? Do they travel the back roads with false IDs so that they leave no paper trail? Depends on whom one asks.

“They have been here for years, and we’ve seen no noticeable problems,” said White Settlement Police Chief David Place. “They are mobile and nomadic and have no permanent address. But they’ve been fairly decent residents here. Whenever anyone starts claiming they’re scamming people all the time, I think about how some people think all Gypsies are crooks. You can’t say someone is a crook just because you disagree with their lifestyle.”

River Oaks Police Chief Dan Chisholm, whose city is just east of White Settlement, had a different view: “Every October we know they are back in town because we see their new pickups, and because our business [crime] starts to pick up. Bicycles get stolen, shoplifting goes up, we hear from older people that they had been ripped off by some roofer. They are very hard to catch because they are smart about it. If we pick them up on anything, someone with a lot of cash will post bond within a few hours, and then they are gone like the wind.”

Tarrant County prosecutors said they have seen no pattern of cases to suggest that the Irish Travellers are responsible for more crime than any other group. Proponents of the Travellers said the group’s reputation of criminal activity is based upon their lifestyle, not fact.

Everyone in law enforcement who has dealt with them agrees on one thing: They are not violent. Assaults, robberies, and the use of weapons is not their style.

Out of the 10,000 Irish Travellers estimated to be in this country, about 1,000 have been known to spend part of the winters in White Settlement.

Now, it seems, they may plan to become permanent residents.

To Barbara and Bobby Adian, the Travellers do not seem as big a threat to the stability of White Settlement as some past city councils and Gus Pappas have been. But even as they celebrate their recent political victories, they are still wary of the Travellers’ incursion into the political life of a town that the couple has been sweating to clean up for years. “Why now?” Barbara Adian asked. “They have been here for years and didn’t get involved. Why now?”

The Adians take pride in the fact that they are regarded as citizen activists. From the intrusion of a car wash into their 40-year-old residential neighborhood to the bigger issues of how tax dollars are spent at city hall, the Adians, colleagues said, have been steadfast citizen watchdogs looking out for the people’s business for years, with no hidden agenda. Douglas praises Barbara for organizing the first Citizens on Patrol group and convincing homeowners to make their homes “safe houses” for neighborhood kids in need of an adult or the police.

Before forcing the issue of Veterans Park spending, they fought excessive water bills and building codes that made home repairs prohibitively expensive for low-income families, and they worked to clean up a creek full of sewage.

But their political activism has also made them targets of smear campaigns and threats, they said. When Barbara ran for city council and lost two years ago, unsigned flyers appeared all over town accusing her of being convicted of shoplifting and drug use and, worse, being a “member in good standing with the Metroplex Atheists.” The church-going mother of two teens, sitting in her living room surrounded by her collection of angel images, said she has no criminal record and has never heard of the “Metroplex Atheists.”

Their concern about the sudden political involvement of the Travellers in White Settlement politics boiled over into the public debate during this past council election, triggered by a small political ad Bobby bought in the Bomber News. The ad accused three council incumbents of hiding city wrongdoing at Veterans Park and enlisting the help of the Travellers to get them and their colleague David Griffith elected. The ad charged that the incumbents had given the RV-park residents permanent status in order to get their votes, “thus giving the clan voting rights and the Travellers are registering to vote in large numbers.” The ad went on, “Are they using correct names? No one knows. ...”

The accusations triggered a full-page response from a New York City Traveller supporter, Lawrence V. Orway, who identified himself as a lawyer. “Why do you hate them?” the response asked. Orway defended the Travellers as being law-abiding, reminded readers of the history of repression and death in Hitler’s camps of people labeled “gypsy,” and wondered why anyone in America would want to deny voting rights to people just because they were different. He lauded Griffith as a man “who is not blinded by stereotypes or by bigotry.”

The Adians make no apologies for Bobby’s ad. It was not run out of bigotry or prejudice, they said, but to clean up city hall. The Travellers, they believe, were victims as well, exploited simply to keep the old guard in.

“They come and go,” Barbara said of the clan. “They are seasonal; they are not here year-round. Even their kids are taken out of school when they hit the road. They pay property taxes on a section of land, not on their individual trailers. We pay property taxes, and we are here for the long haul.”

“We have paid our dues,” the Adians said.

Certainly they can point with pride at having put democracy to the test and winning. This crew of ordinary citizens exposed apparently serious waste of the taxpayers’ money and brought in new political leaders to put the city back on track.

“Dues paying” is a distinction that many in this town say is the real issue between the townies and newbies, not bigotry or an effort to deny anyone the right to vote. “It’s a sacred right,” the mayor said. “Everyone has the right to vote.” Still, that 900-pound gorilla, the question of the Travellers’ political clout, is sitting in many a White Settlement living room these days.

Ouzts said he got a call from McDonald after the election. “We’ve had a nice little exchange of ideas,” he said, on improving relationships.

But the Travellers aren’t talking right now. Summer’s here and they’re out on the open road.

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