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Martha Coakley's permanent campaign

Defense lawyers laud Coakley's bargaining in the Stephen Fagan kdinapping case, but because of the harsh media reaction, some speculate that she may be wary of such negotiations in the future.
By Sally Jacobs

Martha Coakley is making her case.

The Middlesex County district attorney is standing before the Framingham Democratic Town Committee at its regular monthly meeting on the second floor of the Union House restaurant. It is a cramped, windowless room that smells strongly of ammonia and last night's cigarettes. The light out front is broken.

The room is filled with nearly a score of regulars, a crowd of short-sleeved shirts (men) and soft-soled shoes (women.) Coakley is the only one in the place wearing a suit _ a tailored maroon jacket and thigh-high skirt _ except for her PR man, who sits stiffly at her side. She is talking, as she has been invited to do, about her first nine months in office. She is talking about juvenile crime and the state's open-meeting law. She is talking about Beanie Babies.

"The biggest problem we have in Framingham is the theft of Beanie Babies,' she jokes, referring to the recent discovery of a cache of stolen toys.

It is not exactly sexy stuff. And it is definitely not the kind of stuff that draws the international television cameras that zeroed in on Coakley when she prosecuted the celebrated nanny murder case, winning a conviction of 19-year-old Louise Woodward. It is the stuff of a problem solver, a doer. Earnest, primed with information, Coakley has the air of someone who sorely lacks a diagram and a pointer. There is nothing she cannot answer. Can't wrest the minutes of the meeting from the selectmen? "Send a complaint to our office.' Undecided about school uniforms? "I went to Catholic school for 11 years, and I happen to think uniforms are a good idea.'

What's more, she can be funny. Pointing out how little people remember of what goes on in court, Coakley tells of how Barry Scheck, the flamboyant defense lawyer who represented both Woodward and O.J. Simpson, was worried that jurors in the Woodward case would link him to the earlier trial. "He was quite disappointed to find no one knew who he was,' Coakley says.

Laughter swells right up to the pocked drop ceiling. Never mind that Coakley is a trifle brisk, that she oozes big city right down to her black patent-leather pumps. This is their kind of DA. One who knows almost every one of their first names. Who has come to their town half a dozen times before. Who does not forget. And when she is finished, done making a case for herself, hands wave wildly in the air with questions.

"Marther! Marther!' they call.

If it seems an unlikely place for the DA, if it seems she might be more appropriately found poring over affidavits and police reports, campaigning left far behind her, it is only the start. Tomorrow night, she will parade down the runway modeling a sleeveless black sheath at a downtown benefit. Down the road, there are appearances at the Arlington Catholic Women's Club and the National Association of Women Judges. There are burgers to flip for the Newton Free Library cookout and a trip to Israel with the Anti-Defamation League. And more. One might almost think she was running for something.

No one, after all, knows the benefit of exposure better than Coakley. She was a relatively anonymous assistant prosecutor in the Middlesex office until the media explosion that engulfed the Woodward case slapped her into the red plush armchair of the Today Show and onto television screens around the world. One year later, at 46, she holds the top prosecutor's job in the state's largest county, is the first woman to be elected outright to a DA's post in the state (the only other female DA was initially appointed to fill an empty seat), and is easily mentioned as a possible candidate for attorney general, for lieutenant governor, perhaps even for governor. With her closet of red power suits and her white Miata, not to mention a canny combatant's mind, why not the US Congress?

The subject of all this speculation demurs as she stands outside the restaurant shaking hands. Asked why she bothers to come out here at all, she smiles primly, saying, "It's a good group to stay in touch with.' With the bulk of her four-year term before her, Coakley insists she's tramping the pavement just to let people know what she's doing, to nourish ties in the community. Probably she'll run for reelection. Maybe she'll just "retire to Martha's Vineyard and write murder mysteries.'

But they're watching her around the state and particularly in Framingham. They're watching her shaking hands in the night, her brilliant yellow hair glinting beneath the street lamp, those shimmering pumps pivoting on the pavement. When, at last, Coakley heads into the dark with her briefcase under her arm, two elderly men watch her from the restaurant's shadow.

"Nice girl,' one observes to the other.

Nice is not a word that was ever used to describe Coakley during the Woodward trial. Relentless. Icy. Unflappable. Never nice. And particularly not during the critical testimony about victim Matthew Eappen's eyes, testimony that in the end may not only have sealed the au pair's fate but served as a critical turning point in Coakley's own career.

No one disagreed that there was bleeding behind Matthew Eappen's brown eyes. The defense team, led by Scheck, claimed that the bleeding resulted from a sudden eruption of an old injury. The prosecution argued that the blood stemmed from a more recent shaking or throwing of the 8-month-old. Coakley, the assistant prosecutor in charge of cross-examining the defense's medical experts, did not raise her voice or flog defense witnesses. She asked crisp, precisely calculated questions that drew on years of experience prosecuting child abuse cases. And when Dr. Jan Leestma, a neuropathologist who was a chief defense witness, took the stand to say that he believed the baby's injuries were weeks old, Coakley pounced. She swiftly produced a chapter he had written for a medical text in which he appeared to criticize the defense's very own theory.

"I felt I could die happy as a prosecutor at that stage,' Coakley recalls.

And the jury apparently agreed with her. Not that anyone was particularly happy with the outcome of the case. The jury convicted Woodward of second-degree murder, although the judge later reduced the verdict to manslaughter and allowed the au pair to go free with credit for time served. In the chaos that followed, the judge was criticized for being too lenient; the prosecution for overreaching in charging Woodward with first-degree murder in the first place; the defense for gambling in eliminating a manslaughter charge as an option for the jury. But no one blamed Martha.

In a way, Coakley was the victor in the long, tangled process that was the nanny case. It was she, the most poised, media-savvy member of the prosecutorial team, who was generally put forth instead of lead prosecutor Gerard T. Leone to field press questions and appear on a platoon of television shows, including 60 Minutes. Her opponents in the DA's race criticized her for exploiting the case for political gain and for using an image from the trial in a campaign ad.

While Coakley acknowledges that she enjoyed unparalleled name recognition going into the race, she is also a little tired of the rap.

"No question that from the Woodward trial people knew who I was,' she says. "But I then say they would not have known, remembered, or thought favorably of me if I had not done a good job. And so to the extent that that case was a showcase for my experience and talents, sure. Did that help win the race? Yeah. Is that a bad thing? No.'

Even though few voters had heard Coakley's name before the Woodward case, she had been a prosecutor, and an effective one, long before Woodward became the world's most famous au pair.

Hers is a career rooted in Perry Mason. As a girl growing up in North Adams, Coakley pored over the fictional exploits of the crack defense lawyer, as well as those of Nancy Drew. But it was not criminal law alone that initially drew her as much as it was the verbal jousting of the courtroom. An avid high school debater and skilled wordsmith, Coakley turned to law and civil litigation in particular, after graduating from Williams College, thinking it a good forum for her verbal skills.

For seven years, she worked at two downtown Boston firms doing tort litigation and liability cases. Eventually, she concluded what Mason and Drew had seen before her.

"I realized that criminal [law] was where the action was,' Coakley explains. "In civil, there wasn't much trial work, because it was often negotiated out. I wanted to move cases, to see a result. I wanted to go to trial.'

And so she did. Hired by the Middlesex district attorney's office in 1986 to work in the busy Lowell court, Coakley worked the trenches, prosecuting assault and battery and drunken driving cases, sometimes going to trial six times a day. Coakley's skill, as she had sensed, was her facility with words. Where some prosecutors run hot, appealing to jurors' emotions, Coakley runs cool. Her weapons are reason and information, her arguments fortified by logic. And she was good enough at it so that the US Department of Justice plucked her from the DA's office a little over a year after she got there to work on its Organized Crime Strike Force.

"You don't have to be around Martha too long to be amazed at her vocabulary,' says Ernie DiNisco, an assistant US attorney who has worked with Coakley. "She is incredibly articulate.'

Tom Dwyer Jr., one of Boston's most powerful defense lawyers, recalls a 1987 case in which he listened to Coakley tell a judge why his client should be convicted. She won, although the conviction was later overturned. Coakley, he recalls, "gave a hell of a closing argument. Was she overreaching? Absolutely. But she argued so well that she convinced the judge.'

The Justice Department job, however, didn't last long. Part of the problem was that Coakley missed the more gregarious, high-energy DA's office. Part of it was that she still wasn't in court enough. Although Coakley was involved in several ongoing corruption investigations, few made it to trial, and her hunger for action was unsated. In 1989, she returned to the DA's office.

"I really, really wanted to do the trial stuff,' she says with a shrug. "I wanted to do murders.'

Coakley didn't get murders. She got worse. She got child abuse. And she got it at a time when the nation was in deep, and very public, turmoil about the subject. Two years earlier, the Fells Acres case - in which Malden day-care operators Cheryl Amirault LeFave and her mother, Violet Amirault,

were convicted of multiple counts of abuse stemming from the children's claims of, among other things, being molested with knives and tied naked to trees - had electrified the country.

Coakley, who took over the Middlesex child abuse unit in 1991, did not want the job. Partly because they were complex, specialized cases, and partly because she did not want "to start at the bottom again' in an area in which she had virtually no experience. But in the end, her five years in the position would be a defining theme of her career. During that time, she prosecuted some of the county's highest profile cases, their names blasted on the nightly news: the Rev. Paul Manning, a Woburn priest acquitted of sexually assaulting an altar boy. Corby and Nancy Adkinson, sentenced in 1997 to 45 and 35 years, respectively, for drugging and raping their four young sons. Then there were Ray and Shirley Souza, the Lowell grandparents whose 1993 conviction on charges of raping their grandchildren became the subject of a fierce national debate over recovered memories and landed them on the cover of Newsweek and on national TV.

Although nationally several high-profile convictions for sexual abuse have since been overturned, blamed both on overzealous prosecutors and flawed techniques for interviewing children, professional opinion remains divided over how much of what children say can be believed. Coakley bristles at the notion that frenzy over child abuse led to unjust convictions. Rather, she says, the reversals of some convictions stem from procedural issues unique to each case and should not be lumped together.

Just last year, Middlesex prosecutors acknowledged that the techniques used to interview children in the Fells Acres case, in which Cheryl Amirault LeFave's conviction was overturned and then reinstated, were less than perfect. Recently, substantial changes have been made in the procedures under Coakley's guidance. Now, for example, interviewers do not ask leading questions or react to what a child says.

Coakley, however, stands by the Fells Acres convictions and says she thinks it highly unlikely that children manufacture stories of sexual abuse.

"No question, kids can lie,' she says. "You can say, `Did you take a cookie?' And they say, `No,' and they have chocolate all over their face. But it is totally difficult for a 6-year-old to fabricate a set of smells and the feel of something that they have never been through before. Kids cannot fabricate a comprehensive lie about putting their fingers in their grandmother's vagina and say it feels slimy and tell that to an interviewer and say it in court again six months later.'

Child abuse cases are among the most difficult to prosecute. And while they took a substantial toll on Coakley, she had also been undergoing severe personal stress during the 1990s. Her father died in 1993, her mother in 1995. The following year, her brother, who had suffered from bipolar disorder for years, hanged himself shortly after he was discharged from a hospital. Asked about her mother, Coakley starts to cry and walks away from an interview to compose herself.

"We are all struggling with that grief,' says Mary Coakley-Welch, Coakley's sister. "It is very close to the surface.'

By the end of 1995, Coakley was burnt out. She had supervised nearly a thousand child abuse cases. She had looked into the eyes of children who had endured things no human should know of. She began looking around for something else to do. And when she decided to make a long-shot run for a state representative's seat opening up in Dorchester, no one was much surprised.

"It seemed a very natural choice for her,' says Coakley-Welch. "Running for office was always on the list of things that Martha was considering.'

Coakley had several disadvantages going into the race. She was from somewhere else. She had no political experience. And being a woman was not exactly a plus. While Coakley did poorly in the race, coming in fourth out of six, she scored big in the performance and publicity departments. Though her opponents were better known and better connected, Coakley had impressed many with her poise and oratory.

"By the end of the race, ba-boom, she was sharp, focused, she was coming into her own. She was earning everybody's praise,' recalls Scott Harshbarger, the president of Common Cause in Washington, D.C., who hired Coakley when he was Middlesex DA. "The public stage is where Martha really bloomed.'

A tepid fall sun is barely setting in Arlington, and Martha Coakley is, astonishingly, sitting in her rented apartment, a spare two-bedroom unit on the second floor of a mint-green house with Astroturf on the front stoop. It is astonishing because for most of her adult life, Coakley has been hard at work at the office at this hour. Lately, however, she has had a reason to cut out a little earlier, and his name is Thomas O'Connor.

O'Connor, 51, deputy superintendent of investigations for the Cambridge Police Department, is Coakley's fiance. Sipping a steaming cup of tea, he is sitting on a small sofa across the room from Coakley, watching the TV news. Secured to his black leather belt is a beeper and a police badge. On her black leather belt is a beeper and a cell phone. Neither of them has ever been married. Although they had traveled in the same law-enforcement circles for more than a decade, they didn't meet until O'Connor dropped by her DA campaign headquarters to give her a $100 donation.

"He told me later he didn't think I had a prayer,' Coakley says with a laugh.

O'Connor is a solid, reserved man who lives in Charlestown. If there were some who might have been daunted by dating the DA, not to mention one just coming off the crest of international media fame, O'Connor was not one of them. "Why would I be?' he asks with a shrug. "I mean, I've been around a lot of lawyers.'

Coakley and O'Connor are to be married next fall, but their engagement might just as easily not have happened. By Coakley's own admission, she had grown accustomed to her unmarried state and did not particularly long to change it. Part of the reason was that, despite a series of boyfriends, she hadn't found the right guy. Part of the reason was that Coakley is one of a generation of women who felt they had to put career before family if they wanted the top jobs and corner offices. They were not the first to toss out their bras and get advanced degrees, but they followed closely behind those who were.

"It was not like I ever said, `I'm not going to get married and have kids.' It's just what happened,' Coakley says. "I guess the way I see it is I don't think I could have, for me, as a female, done what I have done if I'd had kids. Maybe if I started now, I could, because I think things have changed. But I am very much happy with my decision not to have a family.'

It was a decision that, characteristically, she considered thoroughly. "I think in my late 30s I went through the, you know, do I want to have a child: I'm not married. Do I want to do this? I thought about this very seriously, because I didn't want to suddenly be 60 and say, `Oh, my God, I never did it.' But I think I came to a pretty clear resolution, which I am pretty happy with. Which is, you can't do everything in life.'

Another reason for Coakley's choices may also be rooted in her upbringing. Born in North Adams in 1953 to an insurance salesman and a homemaker, Coakley is one of five children. Although her mother, one of 10 children herself, devoted her life to keeping a good Catholic household, she encouraged her children to pursue careers of their own. And Coakley stepped to the head of the line from the start.

"Martha always stood out from everybody else,' recalls Carol Noble, a friend of Coakley's since kindergarten. "She was very intellectual, very different. She was brighter than the smartest boys. It was tough being a smart woman in a blue-collar community. I mean, it was still a man's world.'

Not that it slowed her down. Coakley was first in her St. Joseph's parochial school class before she got so bored in her junior year that she transferred to Drury High School, a public institution. She was first in the girls' extemporaneous speaking competition in her freshman year and in many of the debating-team meets. She was a member of the first fully coed class at Williams College and, in her senior year, in 1975, the first woman to be nominated class president, though she lost. She was the class speaker at her graduation from Boston University Law School. And now she is the first female district attorney of Middlesex County.

Even Coakley's close friends - and she has many - are not immune to her triumphs. "Whatever you can do, she can do better,' sighs Marty Murphy, former first assistant in the Middlesex DA's office and now in private practice. "But she is pretty self-deprecating about it.'

While Coakley is generally regarded as a keenly private and intense person, she has a distinctly compassionate side. She is known among her colleagues for writing amusing poetry about them, generally to commemorate an event such as a birthday or job change, a habit she learned from her father. She adopted a greyhound and kept it until she had to move out of the old farmhouse she shared with friends in the Pope's Hill section of Dorchester in order to run for DA. And every other Sunday, she takes 93-year-old Kay Curry of Dorchester, whom she met through a neighborhood program for the elderly, to Mass. "It's very comforting,' Coakley says of church.

A lean figure who often moves as briskly as she speaks, Coakley is also a sports enthusiast. For years, she has rented a ski house in Vermont with friends. A sporadic runner, she also does some brisk power walking in her neighborhood.

Coakley has long been accustomed to wearing the only skirt in the room throughout her career, but she's encountered little backlash due to her gender. There were, however, a few comments. Like the time she joined a group of lawyers meeting before a judge. The judge was a graduate of Amherst College, the archrival of Coakley's alma mater, Williams College, and he knew that the Williams colors were purple and gold and its mascot a purple cow.

As Coakley entered, the judge took one look at her vivid purple suit and pronounced loudly, "Oh, here comes the purple cow.' Recalls Coakley: "Of course, I knew what he was talking about, but the other lawyers just looked at me and waited for me to call the Judicial Conduct Commission.' Then there was the time a judge asked her opinion, saying,

"What do you think of that, Mrs. Coakley?' - then paused and asked, "Is it Miss or Mrs. Coakley?'

"I said, `Judge, it's Ms. Coakley,'' she recalls.

"He said, `Well, what's the matter? Aren't you married? Don't you like men?'

"I said, `Judge, I like men far too much to be married to just one of them.''

The Middlesex district attorney's job is to get the crooks and lock them up. Sort of. It is also to run a sprawling, complex business under a critical public eye.

The district includes "54 cities and towns,' a phrase that was candidate Coakley's mantra, and one she still repeats frequently. That boils down to almost 25 percent of the state's population, or 1.4 million people. From her perch, Coakley oversees 250 employees, a $10 million budget, and a load of about 36,000 cases, most of them related to drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence. It is not a job for the faint of heart.

All of which goes to the heart of why Coakley won and won handily. Her Democratic opponents for the nomination were sons of the city, men presumed to be heirs more by birthright than experience. Timothy R. Flaherty, son of former House speaker Charles Flaherty and a former prosecutor, was one; Michael A. Sullivan, a Cambridge city councilor and son of the former mayor, was the other. But in a district as diverse and urban as Middlesex, the potency of those political ties seemed to pale.

"Everyone who was an insider thought money and political connections would win,' explains Thomas Hoopes, a Boston lawyer and former prosecutor. "They didn't understand the county and that in that DA race, only two things counted. First, the Woodward case gave Martha the perception of being higher quality. More importantly, she had phenomenal name recognition coming out the door.'

Just what she will do in the office remains unclear. Even though crime is down statewide, those who take her measure from her years in the child abuse unit are watchful for signs of an aggressive attack on crime. Defense attorneys are generally unwilling to talk publicly about Coakley, in whose hands their clients' fates may lie, but some regard her as having been unrelentingly zealous. Charges of overreaching echo particularly in the Souza case, which Coakley helped prosecute.

Last year, a judge ruled that the elderly couple did not have to go to prison, as prosecutors had wanted, but could remain under house arrest. In doing so, the judge revoked their original prison sentence of 9 to 15 years and placed them on probation until 2002, causing some to criticize Coakley for slamming the couple too hard in the first place.

"Martha Coakley was one of the people who believed that all victims and children were telling the truth when they said they were abused,' declares lawyer Robert George, who defended the Souzas. "Did she go too far in prosecuting the Souzas? Absolutely. I don't think Martha Coakley ever stopped going 100 miles an hour in her efforts to convict them.'

Coakley continues to argue that the Souzas should be behind bars, saying, "I didn't feel at all there was pressure for us to go on some witch hunt to clean up child abuse. If you look across the board at the abuse cases we did, there are a lot we didn't go after. I'm pretty proud of my record on that.'

Still, some see indications that she may be more flexible than her predecessor, Attorney General Thomas Reilly, a notorious hard-liner. Andrew Good, who represented Louise Woodward, says he was surprised when Coakley told him recently that she thought the outcome of the Woodward case was fair. She has said other things, he adds, indicating that she wants to be fair-minded. "It's early, and a lot of decisions she makes every day are not visible,' Good says. "But maybe this person will be like Nixon going to China.'

Coakley might have been seen as nodding slightly to the East last month when she announced that she would not fight to have Cheryl LeFave, convicted of molesting children in the Fells Acre case, return to prison. Noting that LeFave had served eight years of an 8-to-20-year sentence when her conviction was overturned in 1995 and later reinstated, Coakley said, "The [victims'] families uniformly agreed that as long as the conviction was firm, it was more important for the case to go away than for her to go back to jail.'

Another case that might be a measure of Coakley's tenor, that of Stephen Fagan, has brought her as much criticism as praise. Under the terms of a plea agreement, Fagan pleaded guilty in May to kidnapping his two daughters 20 years ago in return for a suspended prison sentence, five years of probation, and a $100,000 charitable donation.

Coakley took a lot of heat. She defended the deal, saying that a trial would have degenerated into a painful public airing of the family's grievances with no assurance that Fagan would go to prison at the end. Plus, she says, "there were two young girls who never asked for this and who had made it very clear that they did not want a trial.' Protesters called the sentence a "slap in the face,' while newspaper columnists erupted that she'd let Fagan get away a second time.

No one was as incensed as Fagan's former wife, Barbara Kurth. Although Kurth consented to the terms of the deal in a letter written by her lawyer months earlier, she now claims she was strong-armed by prosecutors who said that she would harm her daughters by holding out for a trial. "Martha Coakley said, `We will take a plea of guilty whether you like it or not. It doesn't matter what you think,'' says Kurth, a researcher at the University of Virginia Medical School. "She has denied this up and down. But that is what she said. ... I think Martha Coakley took the easy way out. Martha gets what she wants, which is a conviction, and the case disappears.'

Coakley won't discuss the negotiations, but she adamantly denies the statement Kurth attributes to her. The case, however, clearly troubles her. "If the public says I didn't do the right thing, so be it,' she sighs. "But when the victim [Kurth] says, `I don't want this,' that makes it very difficult. It is very hard to have worked our best to do what we thought [Kurth] wanted and what was the best result for everybody and then to find out afterward that she turned around to say something else.'

One of the lessons of the case may have been that the top job can be a lot tougher than the ones below it. Defense lawyers laud her bargaining in the Fagan case, but some speculate that she may be wary of doing so in the future.

"I think she's scared,' says one defense lawyer who declined to be identified. "Martha got burned by the media on Fagan. And she felt she was blindsided by the ex-wife. I'm sure she is a little gun-shy now.'

So what, then, of Coakley's future? Politically speaking, it will probably depend upon people like Marilyn Safian. A 50-something fan in a pink shirt trimmed with aqua flowers, Safian is the chairwoman of the Framingham Democratic Town Committee. She did not watch a single day of the Woodward trial on TV and does not particularly care about it. She likes Coakley very much.

"She's always been very clear-minded,' says Safian, a Bell Atlantic representative for 10 years. "She knows her job.'

Whatever political ambitions Coakley may have, she's not saying now. Clearly, they hinge in large part on the job she has before her. And part of that, she says, is listening to the people who elected her and "being a responsive public official. You need to be out there.'

But in the tunnel vision of Massachusetts political prognosticators, Coakley already crops up on the screen. Pundits predict the most likely thing for her to go for would be the attorney general's post, as did her two predecessors, Reilly and Harshbarger, if it were to open up. Unlike them, Coakley possesses a secret political weapon, and that is her gender. Not only is she a woman, she is a woman doing what is still a traditionally male job, which might expand her appeal. Women tend to like her not just because of her work in the child abuse unit but also for her firm stand against batterers and her support of a bill establishing an abortion clinic buffer zone.

Which is not to say that all women like her, because they do not. The National Organization for Women did not endorse Coakley in the DA's race because of her support of the death penalty in cases in which a police officer is killed or when murder is committed by someone serving a life sentence. One political activist describes her as "ultimately political. She has aligned herself with the mostly male, mostly Irish establishment in Boston, and that has worked well for her. But it does not work well for a lot of other women.'

There is also a substantial line of potential female candidates ahead of her, including, most notably, Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift and state Treasurer Shannon O'Brien, both relatively young and popular. Still, the bookies are undaunted.

"There is no question she has a future if she wants one,' says Larry Rasky, a political analyst. "She'd be an excellent candidate for Congress. If she ran for lieutenant governor, she'd be taken very seriously.'

Maybe not. Maybe Martha Coakley will retire and write a mystery novel about a priest who disappears with the candlesticks on Martha's Vineyard. Or weary of the law altogether and take a job processing applications for a nanny placement agency. Or launch a program to teach retired greyhounds how to sniff out cocaine.

Marilyn Safian thinks not.

"Of course she'll run for something,' exclaims Safian, flicking off the lights at the Union House restaurant. "Oh, yes. Wouldn't you if you were her?'

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