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Ileana Ros-Lehtinen: Why I’m retiring from Congress

I have been honored and humbled to serve our South Florida community for almost four decades. From helping everyday people with constituent cases to standing up to dictators around the world, I am proud of the work we have accomplished over the years. However, it is now time to take a new step. With the support of my husband,

With the support of my husband, Dexter, and my children, I have decided I will not seek re-election in 2018.

After more than three-quarters of my adult life in elected public service more than 38 years by the next election — I am confident that my constituents would extend my term of service further should I seek to do so. But, we must recall that to everything there is a season, and time to every purpose under the heaven. The most difficult challenge is not to simply keep winning elections; but rather the more difficult challenge is to not let the ability to win define my seasons. This is a personal decision based on personal considerations; I will not allow my season in elected office be extended beyond my personal view of its season, simply because I have a continuing ability to win.

We all know, or should know, that winning isn’t everything. My seasons are defined, instead, by seeking out new challenges, being there as our grandchildren grow up, interacting with and influencing public issues in new and exciting ways.

In my almost four decades in public office, I have worked every day to put South Florida first. From authoring legislation to create the Florida Prepaid College Program which has allowed thousands of students to attain a debt free college education to working day in and day out with thousands of constituents who have found a helping hand in my office, our community has known they have a voice for their concerns in our nation’s capital. As Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and now Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, I have stood with the oppressed around the world and fervently against the dictatorial regimes that abuse and attempt to silence the brave men and women who seek their God-given human rights. I am proud of my record as a staunch supporter of human rights and democracy in my native homeland of Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and other corners of the world. I authored the strongest sanctions legislation on the Iranian regime to keep our nation safe from their rogue nuclear program.

As the first Hispanic woman to serve in the Florida House of Representatives, the Florida Senate, the first Cuban-American to serve in the United States House of Representatives, and, ultimately, the first woman of any background to serve as Chair of a regular Standing Committee of the House, I’ve been honored to help lead the way for young women who want to make a difference in their community while honoring some of our nation’s heroes, such as World War II-era WASP pilots. I am also proud that our office has hosted interns from all over the world, from all walks of life who continue to keep in contact with me and who make me proud every day of the work they are doing to help our community.

It is still astounding to me that in 1960, my beloved parents, my brother and I arrived to this amazing country that graciously offered refuge from the tyrannical regime that has ruled my native Cuba for almost six decades. The same country that let someone who arrived as an 8-year-old refugee who spoke no English to then became the first Hispanic woman to serve in the Florida House and Florida Senate, and then serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, in addition to being the first Cuban-American in Congress, and, ultimately, the first woman of any background to serve as Chair of a regular Standing Committee of the House,

My inspiration for years of public service comes from my parents, Enrique and Amanda Ros, who instilled in my brother and me a deep love for this country, respect and hard work along with my rock and loving husband, Dexter, as well as our children and grandchildren.

I will work diligently for South Florida for the next 20 months with the same fervor that I have always had and the constituents of the 27th Congressional District can be assured that I will continue to be their voice in Congress.

I look forward to continuing to work for the betterment of our community and I will always be a voice for issues that impact South Florida. I am grateful to the United States for embracing me and affording me the opportunity of attaining a blessed life: full of love, purpose, and achievement. I can never repay what this country has given me and I’m honored to have been South Florida’s voice in Congress for so many years.

___

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen represents Florida’s 27th Congressional District.

 

House prepares medical marijuana bill for vote

The Florida House began discussions on its medical marijuana implementation bill, teeing it up for a vote early next week.

The proposal (HB 1397) was amended Friday to move it closer to the Senate bill (SB 406), but House Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, the bill’s sponsor, told members the House continues to be negotiations with the Senate over the final bill.

The amended version of the bill, among other things, allows edible forms of medical marijuana, so long as they are not “attractive to children.” The updated version of the bill also allows for vaping.

It also removes a contentious provision that requires patients to have a three-month relationship with a physician before they can access marijuana. A holdover from the 2014 Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act, dozens of advocates had called on the House to remove the provision.

The Senate bill allows edibles and vaping, and does not include the 90-day wait period.

Once considered to be more restrictive than the Senate version, the amendment appeared to draw the ire of some of the House’s more conservative members. During debate on the amendment, Rep. Gayle Harrell said while she was “pleased to be able to vote on House bill in Health and Human Services,” she couldn’t support the amended proposal.

“This substitute amendment really expands the scope of the constitutional amendment,” said Harrell. “I believe this amendment is very dangerous. It’s going to open up the patient market.”

Harrell pointed to provisions that would expand the use of medical marijuana to people suffering from chronic nonmalignant pain as one of the issues that concerned her. That provision, she said, could allow someone to get a recommendation for something like big toe pain or a headache.

Members also peppered Rodrigues about his decision not to prohibit smoking under the bill, something Rodrigues stood behind.

“It doesn’t ban smoking,” said the Estero Republican. “Smoking is already banned.”

He also said the constitutional amendment authorized a doctor to recommend medical marijuana, but left it up to the Legislature to define the method of delivery. He said science supports the methods outlined in the proposal, and they are methods that “lead to better outcomes for Florida patients.”

The amended version of the bill does not lower the threshold for licensing new medical marijuana treatment centers. Under the proposal, current license holders are grandfathered in, and a member of the Florida chapter of the Black Farmers and Agriculturists Association, which was shut out of the existing system, would be issued a license. The Department of Health would then issue five new licenses to once there are 150,000 qualified patients registered with the compassionate use registry.

The Senate bill quickens the paces, issuing five more licenses by October and then adding four more for every 75,000 people who register with the compassionate use registry.

Rodrigues said licensing is part of the negotiations with the Senate.

The House could vote on the bill early next week. The full Senate could hear the Senate proposal in the coming days.

Interests for and against ‘liquor wall’ legislation react to passage

The reaction to the Florida Legislature’s repeal of the state’s “booze wall” law continued long after Wednesday’s vote.

The House, on a close vote of 58-57, passed the Senate’s bill (SB 106) to allow retailers to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods. (Full story here.)

The legislation now heads to Gov. Rick Scott. If signed into law, the state will end 82 years of mandating that retailers sell distilled spirits in a separate store from other items.

Floridians for Fair Business Practices, a business coalition that included Wal-Mart, Target, Whole Foods Markets and others who favored the measure, issued a statement saying “the legislation finally removes an archaic regulation which has no basis in today’s modern society.”

“We are pleased both chambers recognized the importance of free market principles, increased consumer choice and healthy competition,” the group said. “We encourage Gov. Scott to sign this common sense, pro-business bill into law.”

The Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association, praised lawmakers for “taking down the wall.” 

“Florida consumers want a modern marketplace where they can purchase spirits, wine and beer at the same time and same place – like in most states,” Distilled Spirits Council Vice President Jay Hibbard said in a statement. “We applaud the Florida legislature for listening to its constituents and urge Gov. Scott to sign this pro-consumer legislation.”

Skylar Zander, deputy state director of Americans for Prosperity-Florida, the state’s pro-free market organization, called the separation requirement “outdated.”

“Small businesses and consumers should have the ability to choose what products go on the shelves and what products come off of them,” Zander said. “Rep. Bryan Avila and Sen. Anitere Flores did a great job managing this contentious issue.”

But ABC Fine Wine & Spirits, which has long opposed the legislation, said the Prohibition-era law still “prevent(ed) minors from unlawful access to liquor.”

“The protection of minors and small businesses lost by a single vote in the House today because of members who bowed to enormous political pressure and financial influence from Wal-Mart and Target,” said Charles Bailes III, chairman and CEO of the Orlando-based chain.

“The wall, which has separated minors from hard liquor for decades, has never hurt competition in Florida but it has kept young people from stealing bottles or drinking them in stores,” he said. “We are grateful for the 57 members who voted to fight for that protection and respect their political courage to do the right thing.”

whiskey Wheaties

Legislature votes to tear down the ‘liquor wall’

The Florida Legislature has voted to tear down the booze ‘wall.’

The House, on a by-a-nose vote of 58-57, Wednesday passed the Senate’s bill (SB 106) to allow retailers, at least those who choose to do so, to remove the ‘wall of separation’ between hard liquor and other goods.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Rick Scott. If signed into law, the state will end 82 years of mandating that retailers sell distilled spirits in a separate store from other items. Beer and wine now can be sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

But opponents said their veto campaign has already begun, starting with an argument that the bill will be a “job killer”—a term sure to catch in the jobs governor’s ear. Dozens of independent owner-operators sat in the gallery for the debate, wearing T-shirts saying, “Save Jobs & Small Businesses: Vote No.”

“I’m devastated,” said Amit Dashondi, who owns three liquor stores in Brevard County. “I invested eight years of my life into my business … The governor needs to stand up for us. We’re job creators too.”

The bill also requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It further calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

The issue, which was filed for the last four years, has broken down the usual party-line divisions. Republicans joined with Democrats Wednesday to support and to oppose what’s called the “whiskey and Wheaties” measure.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, told colleagues in debate he never thought he’d be offering a defense of liquor stores.

“Yes members, we have now entered the Twilight Zone,” he joked, adding he wanted to be “honest about the genesis of this bill,” calling out Wal-Mart and Target by name.

“The big box stores wanted more money; who wouldn’t?” Plakon said. “Are we going to give it to them? I say we don’t.”

Those chains and others have said that tearing down the wall separating liquor is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience. But Rep. Julio Gonzalez, a Sarasota Republican and orthopedic surgeon, warned of making alcohol even more accessible.

He told of a patient who died in her forties after years of alcohol abuse, leaving a young son. “Kill this bill before this bill kills your neighbor,” Gonzalez said.

Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, warned that if the bill becomes law, “more alcohol will get in the hands of minors and no good will come of that.”

And Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, said the change will “steamroll small business owners.”

Alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits and small, independently-owned liquor stores, have said the measure will be a death knell to pure-play retailers who sell booze.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain, also opposes the measure because of its investment in its many separate liquor stores.

“This is an industry fight,” Smith said. “This is about Wal-Mart coming to the Legislature, and saying, ‘can you please help us get more market dominance in liquor.’ … Well, I’m not here to make life easier for Wal-Mart.”

Rep. Wengay Newton, a St. Petersburg Democrat, compared the debate to the restaurant scene from Brian DePalma‘s “Scarface,” in which a drunken Tony Montana tells fellow diners, “You need people like me so you can point your fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.’ “

“Wal-Mart’s the bad guy,” said Newton, who supports the measure.

Rep. Bryan Avila, the Hialeah Republican who sponsored the House measure, said he expected a “tense and contentious” debate on the bill.

“The only thing it does is repeal a law created in the 1930s that has outlived its time,” he said in debate. “It just gives a business an option … (but) I understand that any topic related to alcohol is very difficult.”

Liquor ‘wall of separation’ could fall in Florida

A bill to allow retailers to sell hard liquor in the same store as other goods is one step closer to passing the Legislature.

On Tuesday, the House decided to take up the Senate’s version of the “whiskey & Wheaties” legislation (SB 106) out of a “spirit of compromise,” said bill sponsor Bryan Avila, a Hialeah Republican.

After two and a half hours of questions and a string of amendments that were defeated or withdrawn, the House could take a final vote on the bill as early as Wednesday. Its version has been struggling out of committees on one- and two-vote margins.

The Senate bill would repeal a Prohibition-era state law requiring businesses, such as grocery chains and big-box retailers, to have separate stores to sell liquor. Beer and wine already are sold in grocery aisles in Florida.

The bill also requires miniature bottles to be sold behind a counter and allows for a 5-year phase-in. It calls for employees over 18 to check customers’ ID and approve sales of spirits by cashiers under 18.

It still faces strong opposition, with Avila having to defend against a parade of horribles brought up in questions.

Rep. Tom Goodson, for example, brought up that the 955 pure-play liquor stores in the state employ about 1,200 workers, and he worried whether the big box chains would put them out of business.

Wal-Mart, Target and others have said that tearing down the wall of separation between liquor and other goods is a “pro-consumer” move toward added convenience, but independently-owned liquor stores counter they’ll suffer.

Other alcoholic beverage retailers, such as ABC Fine Wines & Spirits, say the measure is a naked play to expand the big-boxes’ market reach.

Last month, Kiran Patel, who owns liquor stores in Melbourne and Palm Bay, told lawmakers that he and other small-business store owners will be “finished.”

“There’s no way we can even compete with” big box chains, he said, which will “put pallets and pallets” of booze out in the open.

Avila didn’t give in Tuesday.

In the 29 other states that sell hard liquor in main stores, “there hasn’t been a rash of underage drinking, there hasn’t been a rash of alcohol-related incidents, there hasn’t been a rash of cases of DUIs, (and) the small businesses there have continued to compete, with no decrease in the number of independent liquor stores,” he said.

Rep. Scott Plakon, a Longwood Republican, tried to amend the bill with a provision that no one under 21 could work in a store where hard liquor was sold.

Publix, the Florida supermarket chain that opposes the measure, has said their reading of state law suggested teenage employees would no longer be allowed to work in stores if hard booze was sold there. Publix’s opposition has been rooted in its investment in separate stores.

It’s about choices, Plakon said, mentioning Wal-Mart and saying its choice was to employ teens, sell hard liquor, or keep separate stores. His amendment failed.

Marco Rubio: With ‘higher standard’ for lawmakers, Frank Artiles was right to resign

Marco Rubio has ‘no doubt’ state Sen. Frank Artiles‘ did the right thing by resigning from the Florida Legislature Friday in the wake of a racist and sexist outburst against two lawmakers.

Elected officials are rightfully “held to a different standard,” Rubio said.

“You hold a public trust, you are a representative of those districts, and you are going to be held to a different standard, and people should know that coming in,” the U.S. Senator from Miami told host Jim DeFede on “Facing South Florida.”

First reported in the Miami Herald, Rubio’s interview will broadcast in full Sunday on WFOR-CBS 4.

“No one forces anyone to run for office,” Rubio, a former state representative and House Speaker, added, “And no one forces you to run in the state Senate.”

“I know Perry Thurston. I know Audrey Gibson, actually very well,” Rubio said, about the two lawmakers involved in Artiles’ comments Monday evening at the Governors Club in Tallahassee.

“She served with me in the House. We’re good friends. And I’m sorry she found herself in that position, because I know that is not what she is in Tallahassee to do. She didn’t seek this out.”

Artiles comments were obviously “unfortunate” and “inappropriate,” Rubio said.

He explained: “My understanding is that he resigned, and, in the end, what people don’t realize is the legislative bodies, the Senate and the House, they are the judge of their own members’ qualifications. They can remove members from their seats. And it sounds like that is where the Senate was headed.”

That said, there was “no doubt” Artiles made the right choice, Rubio said.

“It had gotten in the way of, I think, the Senate being able to function in Tallahassee, and, ultimately, I think, gotten in the way of his ability to continue to serve effectively,” he added.

“You know, I think it happens, and when it happens it has to be dealt with,” Rubio said. “For the most part, people need to recognize that when you are in public office, the words you use, your behavior, is held to a different standard.”

With a “collegial body” like the Florida Senate, Rubio pointed out the need “to work with 39 other people in Tallahassee” to get things done.

“How you comport yourself with your colleagues has a direct impact on your effectiveness,” he said. “Obviously, the terminology that was used is inappropriate in any setting. I think people, for the most part, know that.”

When a person makes “horrible mistakes or decisions horrible things,” Rubio said they need to understand that “they’re not — you’re not going to be treated, nor should you be, like anybody in some other job.”

Elected officials “hold a public trust,” he said. “You are a representative of those districts, and you are going to be held to a different standard, and people should know that coming in.”

Lizbeth Benacquisto: Frank Artiles made the ‘best decision for himself and his family, his constitutes, and the Florida Senate’

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto said she believes Frank Artiles’ decision to resign was the “best decision for himself and his family.”

Benacquisto, the Fort Myers Republican who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, said Sen. Perry Thurston has withdrawn his complaint against Artiles, and as such “no further action on the part of the part of the Rules Committee is warranted in connection with this matter.”

Artiles resigned his seat Friday rather than face a hearing that could have resulted in his explusion from the Senate. He made national news after he accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. While Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday, many said it wasn’t enough and called for his resignation.

“I believe Senator Artiles made the right decision for himself and his family, his constituents, and the Florida Senate,” said Benacquisto about Artiles decision. “I join my Senate colleagues in wishing Frank and his family all the best.”

Thurston, the chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his explusion.

 

Audrey Gibson responds to Frank Artiles’ ‘horrific’ tirade

Sen. Audrey Gibson on Thursday publicly responded to fellow Sen. Frank Artiles‘ racially-charged invective aimed at her earlier this week, saying she’s unsure she can be “comfortable” continuing to serve with Artiles in the Senate.

Gibson appeared at a press conference with Sen. Perry Thurston and a group of Tallahassee-area pastors at the city’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

“It was horrific,” Gibson said, according to the Tallahassee Democrat. “No one has ever addressed me in such a manner in my entire life. I’ve never heard such nasty comments about leadership in my entire life and really denigrating the entire Senate as far as I’m concerned and the constituencies around the state.”

Artiles, a Cuban-American Republican from Miami-Dade County, made national news after he accosted Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, calling her a “b—h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation at a private club in Tallahassee Monday night. Thurston and Gibson are black.

Artiles also used a slang variation of the ‘N-word,’ referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Thurston and Gibson are black. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Thurston subsequently filed a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. Artiles, who is represented by Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews, has called efforts to remove him politically motivated.

Gibson, 61, recalled an incident for the Democrat “when she was a young girl at a department store where African-Americans were allowed to shop.”

“There was a young girl with her mom and we were playing together and her mom yanked her away and said ‘you don’t play with those people,’ ” she said. “Such is life. Back then. But this is today and there is no earthly reason for using any N-words whether you’re referring to Perry and I or your own colleagues. There’s no place for that word.”

In an interview with The Florida Channel, she added, “I need to feel, and I have the right to feel, as comfortable as he does in that body, to which I was elected. And I don’t know that I could do that with him there.”

Senate General Counsel Dawn Roberts is investigating Thurston’s complaint and is scheduled to issue a report to the chamber’s Rules Committee next Tuesday.

Lawyer: Frank Artiles’ racial slurs offensive, but also free speech

A lawyer representing a state senator who could be punished for using a racial slur and other vulgarities said Thursday that the remarks — as offensive as they were — are protected by free speech and that other senators have used similar language.

Tallahassee attorney Steve Andrews wrote to the Senate lawyer reviewing the case of Republican Frank Artiles and said that a complaint filed by black lawmakers shouldn’t be pursued because Artiles is protected under the U.S. Constitution.

He also said Artiles’ comments should be judged side-by-side with the remarks of other senators.

“Should this matter be sent to the Senate floor, my client intends to put evidence of other similar speech by other Senators,” Andrews wrote to Senate lawyer Dawn Roberts.

He also said Roberts should step down from the case because of conflicts of interest, having previously represented Artiles and witnesses that could be called.

The matter began Monday night during a private conversation with two African-American senators at a members-only club near the Capitol. Artiles used obscenities with Sen. Audrey Gibson, including one particularly offensive to women.

Sen. Perry Thurston intervened and Artiles, a Cuban-American from the Miami area, used a variation of the “n-word” and used a vulgarity to describe Republican Senate President Joe Negron, according to the complaint filed Wednesday by Thurston.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, who chairs the Senate Rules Committee, reviewed the complaint and found it’s likely Artiles’ comments and behavior violated Senate rules.

The Florida Legislative Black Caucus is asking for Artiles’ expulsion, which would be an option if the full Senate determines there was a rules violation.

Negron asked Roberts to make a recommendation by Tuesday.

In the meantime, Republican Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the matter while speaking with reporters in Tampa.

“If I had an employee that said what he said, I would immediately fire him,” Scott said.

Thurston wasn’t immediately available for comment, according to a receptionist in his Senate office.

In a separate letter to Negron, Andrews told the Senate president that he should avoid voting on any punishment because he has already prejudged Artiles by condemning the comments earlier this week.

____

AP writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report. Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

David Simmons condemns Frank Artiles comments; calls for due process, suggests PTSD might be factor

Republican state Sen. David Simmons sharply condemned racist and vulgar comments made earlier this week by state Sen. Frank Artiles. 

The behavior is nothing new, Simmons said, but he puts his faith in the Senate’s due process to determine a judgment by the body.

Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, then suggested that Artiles’ behavior might be a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder — or some other circumstance — and the Senate needs to hear of any aggravating or mitigating circumstances before passing formal judgment.

Artiles has acted like this before, he added.

“I consider his comments reprehensible and unacceptable. I believe that at the same time that he is entitled to a full and fair hearing,” Simmon said.

On Tuesday night, in the Governors Club in Tallahassee, Artiles reportedly accosted Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, and Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat, who are both African-American, calling her a “b***h” and a “girl” in a dispute over legislation.

Artiles also used a variation of the “N-word,” referring to her and to white Republicans who supported Joe Negron as Senate President. Artiles apologized on the Senate floor Wednesday, but refused growing calls for his resignation.

Thurston has lodged a Senate rules complaint against Artiles seeking his expulsion. An investigative report by General Counsel Dawn Roberts is due next Tuesday. Simmons said that process needs to proceed.

“I do not believe this is an isolated incident of conduct. I believe that Sen. Artiles has spoken to multiple people in this fashion,” Simmons said.

“I also know that he is an Iraq veteran. I know while there’s no question that he said these things, because he’s admitted it and apologized fort them. The question I have is what aggravating and mitigating circumstances exist regarding why he is and has been acting in this manner. I don’t believe that he should be denied the ability to show that he may have PTSD; he may have some other circumstances,” Simmons continued. “I don’t know. I’m not going to prejudge the type of judgment that we should impose upon him as a Senate.”

Simmons explicitly said he condemned Artiles’ comments Thursday, a declaration that came after the Orange County and Seminole County Democrats jointly issued a statement Thursday afternoon demanding that Simmons speak up. Simmons said he had previously spoken up, giving a similar response to another reporter before the Democrats’ joint statement.

The Orange and Seminole Democrats’ statement, signed by Orange Democratic Chair Wes Hodge and Seminole Democratic Chair Jeff Wilkinson, denounced Artiles’ comments as “bigoted” and called on Simmons, “to immediately condemn his colleague’s remarks. They do not represent Central Florida’s values, and cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.”

Simmons, who says he’s 98 percent decided to run for Congress in Florida’s 7th Congressional District for Orange and Seminole counties, a seat currently held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy, did just that, calling Artiles’ comments “reprehensible,” and part of a pattern of behavior.

“We all know they’re not the only comments he’s made. He made comments against the Senate president. He’s made comments against other Republican senators. And he’s made comments to other senators, on other occasions,” Simmons said.

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