Rob Ford (Reuters/Aaron Harris)

Rob Ford, behind the scenes: "He won't give up the blow"

Rob Ford may be the world's most infamous mayor. How did he melt down in public? Here's the amazing real story


Robyn Doolittle
February 9, 2014 12:00AM (UTC)
Excerpted from "Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story"

Renata Ford pulls into a Tim Hortons parking lot about an hour north of her Etobicoke home. She’s meeting with an acquaintance, a former drug addict, to get some advice. She’s worried. Her husband, Rob Ford, has recently been elected mayor. She knows this new status is going to put her family under intense scrutiny. Renata doesn’t have many friends, but she met John—not his real name—through someone in her small circle. He’d faced addiction and come through it. She’s hoping he can give her some tips to bring Rob on side. What she doesn’t know is that John is secretly recording the conversation.

“Hey, Renata,” John says as she climbs into his front seat.

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“You want a coffee?”

“Oh, no, no.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

Renata trusts him completely. John steers the conversation into incriminating territory. He brings up Rob.

“He still thinks he’s going to party,” Renata says. “He thinks that he, oh, you know, ‘I’ll get off the pills, but I’m not giving up the blow.’”

“He’s a public figure, for Jesus Christ,” John says. “There’s a lot of people after him … that’s why you’ve got to be very careful.”

“I know that,” Renata says. “I told him, ‘Fuck, you could ruin your whole fucking life.’”

“If someone wants his ass, they’re going to get him.”

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“I’ve been trying to tell him that.”

No one gets her, she says. She’s tried to talk to people before, but they can’t help her. She can’t trust them.

“I got two kids. I’ve gotta, you know, I’ve gotta get this shit together. And like you said, we’re in the public.… You know, it’s just time. It’s fucking time,” she says. “So I really appreciate the help.”

John gives her some advice about methadone, withdrawal symptoms, and clinics that will be discreet. She thanks him again.

“I can trust you, because I know you’ve gone fucking through it,” she says before heading back to her car.

This is the other side of Rob Ford’s world, the one that even his most trusted staff didn’t fully know about until the crack cocaine scandal. For two and a half years while running the city, the mayor managed to keep it secret.

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*

It was November 2010, and councillor-elect Jaye Robinson was on her way to meet the mayor-elect. Robinson walked to the west elevator bank at City Hall and pressed 16. The transition team had summoned her. For now, they were working out of the tower offices until David Miller packed up and vacated the mayor’s digs on the second floor. The group was small and mostly made up of familiar faces. There was Nick Kouvalis and Mark Towhey from the campaign. Brother Doug. Two former councillors, Gordon Chong and veteran conservative Case Ootes, former city bureaucrat Claire Tucker-Reid, and a man named Amir Remtulla. Remtulla was the director of government relations for brewing company Molson Coors, but before that he worked as Ootes’s executive assistant at City Hall.

The transition team’s work would be done by December, but many of its members would take up roles in the new Ford administration.

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Robinson was one of fourteen new councillors, although City Hall wasn’t new to her. She’d logged twenty years as a bureaucrat, most notably as the director of events. Many of Toronto’s most treasured cultural initiatives—the Nuit Blanche art festival, the Moose in the City statues, and the culinary event Winterlicious, among others—were Robinson’s work.

The team was trying to meet all the councillors, both veteran and newly elected. Each had been asked to fill out a form indicating which of the seven standing committees—parks and recreation, economic development, public works, etc.—he or she was interested in joining. The most prestigious was the mayor’s executive committee. Robinson signed up for everything. “I figured, I’m not going to be a city councillor forever. I wanted to roll up my sleeves and get really involved in charting the course of Toronto,” she said.

She entered a nondescript boardroom on the sixteenth floor. Three people were waiting for her: Rob Ford, Nick Kouvalis, and Doug Ford. She did a double take. Why was the mayor’s brother here? The conversation lasted less than thirty minutes. The mayor-elect barely opened his mouth. Doug Ford, who was “extraordinarily friendly,” did most of the talking. Later, he would turn on her, but that was still two years away.

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Kouvalis had three questions for Robinson. Would she support privatizing garbage collection in the city’s west side? Would she vote to make the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) an essential service? And would she help kill the vehicle registration tax? “If you’re comfortable with these three issues,” Kouvalis said, “then we’re happy to move forward with you being a member of our executive.”

Robinson was thrilled. All three issues had been part of her platform. But now she had a question. If she joined the executive committee, would she be expected to vote with the administration on every matter all the time? She said she couldn’t commit to that. She considered herself an independent centrist. According to Robinson, Kouvalis made it clear that her allegiance was required only on those three issues. Kouvalis flatly denies this. He says every executive member was made aware that they were expected to vote with the administration on every issue. If a mayor couldn’t rely on his team to support him, the agenda would never get passed, Kouvalis explained to me.

City Hall doesn’t work like other levels of government. Ford would get just one vote on council—one out of forty-five. Unlike in some American cities, the mayor of Toronto doesn’t get to veto policy. The strength of the office is rooted in the individual mayor’s powers of persuasion. On any given issue, Ford would need to woo twenty-two councillors to support him. And that wasn’t necessarily going to be easy. About a third of those elected were hard-core lefties. Another half a dozen identified as centrists, and while the rest leaned right, only about ten were as conservative as the mayor-elect. Ford would need to bridge the vote gap. The mayor’s best bargaining tool was that he got to pick the chairs of each standing committee as well as the members of the all-important executive. City councillors wanted these positions. It gave them profile and power. For members of Team Ford, that power would come at a price.

From the outset, the Ford administration took measures to try to ensure that its agenda was supported. Ford staffers began to distribute “cheat sheets” to like-minded councillors, with suggested votes on dozens of issues. Robinson says it got so bad that members of the executive were expected to show solidarity on simple procedural votes, such as whether someone could speak for three or five minutes during a debate. And it wasn’t just executive committee members who felt the administration’s muscle. The mayor’s office frequently used aggressive tactics to bring centrist votes on side. For example, the administration tried to bully Councillor Ana Bailão to fall in line by holding up, of all things, the installation of a traffic light she had requested for her ward. Councillor Josh Colle, the leader of the so-called Mighty Middle, said of the tactic, “If it’s a strategy to sway votes, I don’t think it’s a productive strategy.” Later in that council meeting, Ford caused problems for a project in Colle’s ward. The mayor relented after the councillor backed Ford’s controversial plan to rip up a major bike lane.

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Like Robinson, Councillor Karen Stintz says that when she accepted the TTC chair position, she didn’t think she had signed up for four years of following orders. “Nick [Kouvalis] had one question: Would I support making the TTC an essential service? I said, ‘Yes, sure.’” Stintz didn’t need selling on the broader Ford agenda. She was a stalwart fiscal conservative. Under the previous Miller regime, she had been a leader in a group of centre-right councillors who formed an unofficial opposition called the Responsible Government Group.

For his part, Councillor Paul Ainslie said he understood right away what he had gotten himself into. “They talked about running it in a cabinet style,” typical of federal and provincial politics, where members are expected to vote as a bloc. Ainslie was offered the chair of the government management committee and a spot on the executive. He had been shut out from leadership during the Miller years, and now he had a chance to shape policy. He couldn’t pass it up. But not long after he accepted, he received a letter distributed by Ford’s staff to each member of the executive requesting him to pledge support for the Ford agenda. Each of them was to sign and return it immediately. “Some of my colleagues were saying, ‘Well, wait a second. We’re not a cabinet-style government here. We didn’t run on a Rob Ford ticket. We ran on our own tickets.’” Everyone started asking for amendments, and eventually the pledge was abandoned. But the tone was set.

Robinson now admits she was a bit naive. “I took a huge pay cut to take this job. I wanted to effect change. I thought we were going to do that. Turns out that wasn’t the case.”

*

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On one of his last days as mayor-elect, November 29, 2010, Ford unveiled his team. There wasn’t a single left-winger or downtown councillor in the mix, and only two women had made it onto the executive. Both were rookies. In fact, eleven of the twelve councillors represented the former boroughs. David Miller had stacked his executive with enough sympathetic councillors to ensure his agenda would get through, but he was also mindful of geography, gender, and ideology. One conservative and three centrists served on his team, and fewer than half represented wards from pre-amalgamation Toronto.

Ford claimed that his approach reflected a new direction. “This is not about left or right. This is about bringing respect for taxpayers back to City Hall. They’re hard-working, they understand customer service, and that’s the bottom line,” the mayor-elect told reporters as his de facto caucus looked on. Doug Holyday would be deputy mayor; Karen Stintz, chair of the TTC. Suburban councillor Frances Nunziata was Ford’s choice for council speaker. And the comically cantankerous Mike Del Grande, a right-winger from Scarborough, would be budget chief.

Case Ootes said the transition team felt it was important to have “unanimous support” for the mayor’s agenda. Former mayor David Miller might have had a few more centrist councillors, Ootes said, but he didn’t invite any staunch conservatives onto his team either.

“The mayor was elected on a platform to end the gravy train. The overwhelming majority of people wanted an end to the spending that was happening under Miller. The councillors on Ford’s executive reflected that. Why would you put a guy like Adam Vaughan on the executive committee?” Ootes said. Vaughan, a former journalist, was a downtown councillor and one of Ford’s most passionate critics.

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“We did take into consideration male–female representation and tried to balance that out in some form or another—like Karen Stintz with the TTC—and that was a challenge, because, as you know, there are more men on council than women,” especially on the right, Ootes said.

With his team in place, Rob Ford used his first press conference as mayor to kill one of the pillars of Miller’s legacy, Transit City. At a cost of $8.15 billion, and seven years in the making, this massive transit expansion plan was funded almost entirely by the province, apart from one arm of light rail in Scarborough, where the federal government was kicking in $330 million. The network relied heavily on above-ground light rail trains, or LRTs. Where subways cost $300 million per kilometre to build, above-ground LRTs come at a bargain $100 million per kilometre. But in Rob Ford’s Toronto, the car reigned supreme, and anything that slowed drivers was bad.

“Ladies and gentlemen, the war on the car stops today,” Ford said. “We will not build any more rail tracks down the middle of our streets.” He called TTC general manager Gary Webster and instructed him to halt work on Transit City and start investigating how to build subways.

The new chair of the TTC was incredulous. Karen Stintz didn’t believe the administration actually intended on ripping the whole thing up. “In my mind, we would kill Transit City, which was a David Miller plan, and rebrand it something else that was the Ford plan,” she said. Scrapping the whole project wasn’t financially prudent, and perhaps not even possible. The provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, had already spent $137 million on the project and signed a $770-million contract for the trains. Subways require high population densities to ensure sufficient ridership to pay back some of the increased costs, and many areas, particularly in Scarborough, didn’t have the densities to support one. Most significantly, the Fords had no idea how to pay for it. Stintz thought killing off Transit City was just political showboating from a new mayor eager to demonstrate his authority.

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During the election, once it became apparent Rob Ford might win, some left-wingers warned he would never be able to govern. “This man can’t even convince five people to vote with him. So if disaster happens and voters are sucked into this tale, the other members of council will steer the ship,” progressive councillor Pam McConnell told me at the time.

But at the first meeting of city council in mid-December 2010, Ford proved his critics wrong. He scored a trio of quick victories with votes to spare. Council voted 39–6 to repeal the vehicle registration tax, 28–17 to make the TTC an essential service (the Ontario government had to approve of the change, which it did), and 40–5 to reduce councillors’ office budgets from $50,445 to $30,000.

The momentum kept up in the New Year with his first budget. As promised, Ford balanced the books without service reductions or tax increases. “This is the beginning of a new era,” he boasted. In truth, the mayor’s maiden budget was an unexceptional, stay-the-course document that relied, ironically, on surpluses from the Miller years. Partly acknowledging this, Ford cautioned that the real hunt for waste, or “gravy,” as he had memorably called it during the election, would start in March. The city was going to hire outside experts to comb through each department searching for efficiencies. They would leave “no stone unturned,” and if managers pushed back, “then we will have to find new managers.”

On the surface, the Ford administration looked well-organized and professional. Pull back the curtain, and it was a different story. Stintz caught her first glimpse during budget discussions. The mayor’s office had signed off on a ten-cent fare increase, so the TTC built its numbers around that revenue. Then, the night before the budget announcement, Kouvalis phoned. “The mayor doesn’t want a fare increase,” he told Stintz. “Go figure it out.” Officials spent the night altering months of work by hand. There would be no increase.

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It got worse from there. After the fare turnaround, Stintz was called to the mayor’s office in late January for a brainstorming session on the new transit plan. Upon arrival, she learned that they already had one: cancel the proposed LRT along Eglinton Street in the middle of the city and use that money to turn the proposed Sheppard LRT line in the north into a subway. Stintz looked around the room to see if they were serious. She was the councillor for Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence. “I invited them to replace me as chair. I also explained this was never going to get through council.” Eglinton impacts half a dozen wards on the east side of the city, meaning half a dozen councillors would be unlikely to support axing transit expansion along this corridor. Kouvalis, Towhey, the mayor, Doug Ford, and Stintz’s assistant were in the room. Rob Ford didn’t say much. Doug kept insisting the private sector would “give us billions!” to pay for subways, which Stintz said was completely unrealistic. “I left that meeting thinking, These guys are nuts. And you can put that in your book.”

*

As a candidate, Ford pledged to run a transparent government. But as mayor, he was astoundingly secretive. His office refused to release his daily schedule, something most political leaders do, including Ford’s predecessors. My colleague Daniel Dale tells of calling staff in the Chicago mayor’s office—we frequently use the Windy City as a comparison in stories: Toronto does x, Chicago does y, Montreal does z—and having Ford’s schedule come up in conversation. Dale mentioned that Ford didn’t release them, and the aide in Chicago was lost for words. “But, but then how do you know where to go to cover him?” Exactly. In 2013, when asked about a misbehaving member of his staff, Ford laid out his views on the public’s right to know: “It’s actually no one’s business what happens in my office.”

Given that Ford’s staff continued to freeze out the Toronto Star, reporters from the paper relied on Twitter to keep track of the mayor’s whereabouts. Sometimes our colleagues in the City Hall press gallery would give us a heads-up about an appearance, and sometimes not. All considered, it wasn’t as big a problem as you might expect. The mayor of Toronto almost never spoke to reporters, which, if it needs saying, was extremely unusual. Meanwhile, Doug Ford had become the de facto spokesperson for the administration. (To the annoyance of Ford’s staff, Doug still took the Star’s calls, because he couldn’t help himself when asked for his opinion.) The problem with that arrangement was that reporters could never tell if Doug Ford was speaking for himself or the mayor. One of the first things Doug did after being elected was to contact city staff to see about installing a door in the wall between his Ward 2 office and the mayor’s office. This would give him round-theclock access without anyone seeing him come or go. City staff put the kibosh on the idea, largely because of the expense, but door or no door, title or no title, Doug was as much a part of the mayor’s office as the chief of staff. Doug acted on behalf of the mayor in meetings with business leaders, city staff, and councillors. As far as he was concerned, Rob might be mayor, but it was the Ford family that was running the city. (This led to numerous blow-ups with Nick Kouvalis, the chief of staff. Kouvalis was fed up. He quit two months after the inauguration.) This caused a great deal of tension between the Ford brothers, sometimes publicly.

This was the case in mid-February 2011, when Doug suggested the mayor should have more power so that the office wasn’t beholden to council. In some American jurisdictions, such as Chicago, mayors can veto decisions that don’t have a two-thirds majority. Asked about the comment, Rob Ford said Doug had been spending too much time south of the border. (Before getting elected, Doug Ford split his time between Etobicoke and Chicago running Deco Labels.) Reporters pressed the mayor about why Doug seemed to be doing all the talking. Was Ford avoiding the media? “My brother is not the mouthpiece,” Rob said. “I’m always available. I tell you, it’s pretty hard to hide three hundred pounds of fun.”

Nevertheless, Rob Ford continued to be MIA.

A little more than a month later, the Star’s Daniel Dale, through freedom-of-information requests, was able to obtain Ford’s daily schedules for the first ten weeks of his reign. They showed Ford had been slated to attend more than 110 events in his first sixty-nine days. They ranged from a Christmas party at the elite Albany Club to a championship spelling bee to Chinese New Year events. The documents revealed Ford had semi-regular meetings with councillors, provincial and federal politicians, and business leaders. Dale checked up on as many of the items as possible. In some cases, Ford had never shown up. In a few others, Doug had taken the mayor’s place. Another interesting tidbit gleaned from the schedules was that Ford still had a foot in the family business. On January 24, 2011—the day Ford’s budget was to clear the committee level—his schedule said “DECO ALL DAY.” And of course, football was in there too. In one reference, on Thursday, February 3, Ford was scheduled for a “locker room meeting” at 10 A.M. Yes, football—during a Canadian winter.

After Dale’s story, Ford’s staff began stripping specific names from schedules so that no one could verify his attendance. Several former staffers tell me that releasing a daily schedule would have been challenging, because they were never sure if Ford would show up. Says Adrienne Batra, who after the election became Ford’s press secretary, “It’s fair to say I didn’t know where he was about half of the time.”

Rob Ford’s open disdain for the press shouldn’t have been a surprise. His mayoral campaign was designed to avoid the mainstream media. Whether it was strong-arming councillors or ignoring reporters, Ford was unapologetically doing things differently. And the people who had it the worst were the staff at City Hall.

*

Under previous regimes, the opinions of city bureaucrats were more valued, their years of institutional knowledge and expertise routinely put to use. Managers and department heads were more or less treated as partners. The Ford administration had a different style. When marching orders to find reductions were handed down, pushback was not tolerated.

Deputy city manager Sue Corke resigned in March 2011. She later told me, “There was a lack of civility. The environment wasn’t as professional as what I had been used to in thirty years in the public sector. I’m used to a professional environment in which civil servants are provided with respect and where they provide the best advice to their political masters.” She said the mayor’s staff—and brother—sometimes ignored advice that didn’t fit with their “right-wing ideology.” It was too frustrating a work environment for Corke, who believes social policy should be based on evidence, not ideology.

Another senior manager who left in 2012, and who asked for anonymity to protect remaining staff, told me, “Clearly, there is a lot of influence and persuasion, and I’d even say bullying, to have city staff do the will of the mayor’s office.”

Within the first year, more than a dozen high-level managers left City Hall, some voluntarily, some not. In 2012, Toronto ombudsman Fiona Crean released a report that accused the mayor’s office of interfering in the process of selecting citizen members for the city’s boards and agencies.

Crean—who holds one of the four “accountability” positions created after the MFP scandal—was attacked for five gruelling hours at council when she presented her findings. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, once Ford’s mortal enemy, now his caucus whip, accused her of having “political motivations.” Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, a member of Ford’s executive, questioned her objectivity. Councillor Doug Ford said her findings were based on “hearsay.”

Council eventually voted unanimously to adopt Crean’s recommendations. Three months later, the administration denied Crean’s request for an additional full-time investigator.

“The evidence certainly points to this being a political payback for her reports,” left-leaning Councillor Joe Mihevc told the Star afterwards. “Budget time is the time to get back at people, and it seems like this is the play.”

Many felt the Ford administration was too harsh with staff. Others say that drastic change meant there would be casualties. Ford got elected because Torontonians believed the public service at City Hall was bloated and wasting money. And whether you loved or loathed the mayor, whether you supported or opposed his methods, City Hall became a leaner operation on Rob Ford’s watch.

Press secretary Adrienne Batra recalled, “Managers were coming to us proactively with budget reductions. Rob Ford set a tone that changed the culture.”

*

The great gravy hunt began on March 21, 2011, the day the executive approved a three-pronged investigation of city services. Council then agreed to pay external consultants three million dollars to drill deep into every department, agency, board, and commission to locate the waste Ford promised was there. Phase One: separate “core” programs from “discretionary” ones. Phase Two: find the flaws, the overlaps, the duplications in delivery of services. Phase Three: determine if people were paying enough for them.

Findings from Phase One, which were prepared by consulting firm KPMG, came out in July 2011. It turned out that most of what the city did was “core.” In fact, the bulk of what the city provides is mandated by the province. The consultants did identify lots of non-essential nice-to-haves, like fluoride in the water, bike lanes, recycling programs, late-night bus routes, and some snow plowing. But most people thought, unsurprisingly, that dental health and being able to drive in the winter were pretty important.

Some backlash was inevitable, but things might have gone differently if the review had steered clear of the library system. This was the issue that, ultimately, galvanized the public and council against the mayor. And it was all Doug Ford’s fault.

On the third week of the core-service-review reports, KPMG presented its findings on the library system to the executive committee. Page 76 left the public baying for blood: “The Library Services could be reduced by reducing the number of branches [there were about one hundred] and/or constraining the hours of service.” Doug Ford threw gasoline on the inferno. “I’ve got more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons,” he said, referring to the ubiquitous coffee shops. Beloved Canadian author Margaret Atwood poked back on Twitter: “Twin Fordmayor seems to think those who eat Timbits [doughnuts], like me, don’t read, can’t count, & are stupid eh?” Atwood rallied her 220,000-plus Twitter followers to patronize their local library, then hold book club meetings at their local Tim Hortons. Rather than ignore the jab, the mayor’s brother doubled down, saying he would close a library in his ward “in a heartbeat.” And as far as Atwood was concerned, said Doug, “I don’t even know her. If she walked by me, I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” His advice to Atwood? “Go run in the next election and get democratically elected. And we’d be more than happy to sit down and listen to Margaret Atwood.”

It was the first time Karen Stintz split publicly with the Fords. In a letter to her constituents, she announced, “I value the Toronto Public Library and can assure my constituents that these are not the type of cuts that I will support.” Speaker Frances Nunziata was next, saying that if anything libraries should be better equipped to deliver city services. On July 28, the executive committee held a marathon twenty-two-hour meeting to hear from the public. Only three of the 169 members of the public who spoke supported cuts.

Rob Ford seemed to be taking it all in stride, but beneath his confident demeanour he was starting to come apart. The mayor couldn’t rely on his own team. His message was being lost. He knew Doug was getting out of control and irritating his staff, but how could he get rid of his own brother? Looking back, two members of the mayor’s staff at that time told me it was apparent the stress was getting to him.

*

Rob Ford is stumbling down Front Street near Blue Jays Way, his drenched shirt hanging loose, the collar unbuttoned around his neck, a Slurpee cup in hand. A bachelorette party is on the sidewalk in front of him. He pushes past.

The girls watch as he starts to cross the street. Doesn’t he look familiar …? Then it clicks. “That’s Rob Ford!”

They chase after him, asking for a photo. He seems to say no, waving his arm and muttering “aaaaah.” But the girls crowd around him. Ford’s eyes are shut and he doesn’t quite manage a smile. One of the girls puts her arms around Ford’s neck and asks for someone to take a photo while she kisses his cheek.

Jason Hebert and two friends were standing next to the young women when Ford came by. The twenty-six-year-old got in touch with the Star and came into the office shortly after. “He stunk like booze. He was definitely drunk.” The photo with the girls made it online, but the media largely left it alone.

“This was the first time anything like this had happened,” said a member of the mayor’s staff. Ford wasn’t supposed to be by himself that August night. He should have been watching the Ontario varsity football championships at the Rogers Centre with a young aide, but he hadn’t shown up and wasn’t answering his phone. The game was nearly done, so the staffer went home. Then Ford decided to go after all. From then on, the mayor’s office instituted a new rule: the mayor’s designated handler on any given day had to wait at City Hall until 10 p.m. in case Ford called—even if he’d been MIA.

From "Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story" by Robyn Doolittle. Copyright © Robyn Doolittle, 2014. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Books Inc.


Robyn Doolittle

Robyn Doolittle is a city hall reporter at the Toronto Star

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