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Is your town breaking state law? Could be, and Queen of Hearts jackpots may be in jeopardy.

Queen of Hearts raffles take Southern Illinois by storm

File video: The Nashville American Legion had one of the area's first big pots. Now the Steeleville American Legion's jackpot has passed $1.4 million.
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File video: The Nashville American Legion had one of the area's first big pots. Now the Steeleville American Legion's jackpot has passed $1.4 million.

At least a dozen Queen of Hearts raffles in the metro-east may not be in accordance with state law, according to a Belleville News-Democrat investigation.

In some cases, the raffles themselves appear to violate parts of the state’s Raffles and Poker Runs Act. In other cases, the raffle ordinances in the cities don’t appear to be consistent with state law. And in yet other cases, the cities don’t appear to be enforcing their own raffle ordinances.

Gambling critics and experts say if the laws are not followed and enforced, it can lead to big problems: The prize money could be seized by the government, losing players could demand refunds, the insurance policies of the organizations might not cover accidents, and large crowds can threaten the safety of communities.

And even though some of these raffles have reached jackpots approaching $1 million, no one, either from the local or the state level, seems to regulate them.

The game has helped organizations, many of which may be struggling with declining memberships, find a source of income and have more opportunities to donate to other causes.

With the Queen, however, comes her rules.

If a municipality or county does not have a raffle ordinance, it cannot issue legitimate raffle licenses.

Under the Illinois Raffle and Poker Runs Act, cities are in charge of crafting their own raffle ordinances, which must also comply with state code. Municipalities and counties do not have to pass raffle ordinances, but without one, they cannot issue legitimate raffle licenses.

William Bogot

William Bogot and Donna More, Chicago attorneys who have served as counsel to the Illinois Gaming Board, said the state’s criminal code essentially outlaws all gambling unless another state law or city ordinance allows it.

That includes Queen of Hearts games.

Experts say that for an organization to legally have a raffle, they must fill out an application and be issued a license. Both the application and license must include specific information.

The most common problems found with Queen of Hearts raffles and city raffle ordinances in the metro-east included:

▪  Not having a maximum prize amount in the city ordinance, or raffles going over the maximum prize amount in the ordinance.

▪  Conducting raffles at premises that do not appear to be allowed under state law. At least three local Queen of Hearts raffles are being conducted at privately-owned bars.

▪  Organizations being issued raffle licenses despite not applying for them, or in some cases, raffles being conducted without the city issuing any license at all.

Confusion and various interpretations of the law seem to have led to disparities in local ordinances. In some cases, the city regulations do not follow state law. In others, the city has no ordinances at all, but still hands out raffle licenses.

No application, no license

The American Legion in Aviston, which is conducting a Queen of Hearts raffle with a jackpot that is expected to top $1 million, has a license issued by the city, but never filled out an application. The license did not include any of the criteria mandated by state law.

Aviston Mayor Dale Haukap said he recognized the city made a mistake and is now having the Legion fill out an application.

“The oversight was the application for the license. We issued a license; we thought, ‘This is great, this is going to cover everything.’ But we looked deeper into it and saw the application form wasn’t filled out. It was a negligence on us.” he said. “Little small towns like us, we never had to think about it before.”

Aviston’s village attorney, Henry Bergmann, said he reviewed the city’s ordinance and raffle license before it passed earlier in the year, but said he would have researched it more thoroughly had he known the jackpot would grow so big.

To him, the license is still valid, even without an application.

The pot was $695,000 for the Queen of Hearts drawing Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Aviston American Legion.

But Bogot, the Chicago attorney, questions that.

“They never applied for a license? How did they get one? Wow,” Bogot said. “I don’t even know what to say to that. It would appear to me that there’s no valid license.”

Bogot questioned the validity of a license that is granted with only a verbal application or no application at all, particularly since the application is supposed to contain a sworn statement about the type of organization seeking the license.

Little small towns like us, we never had to think about it before.

Aviston Mayor Dale Haukap

“My gut would tell me it’s hard to conceive of an oral application. I don’t know how you have a sworn statement that doesn’t exist anywhere physically,” Bogot said. “If the state put in the statute that they wanted sworn statements, that’s important. The average person has never given a sworn statement in their entire life — it’s for important things.”

The Avison game, which has run for more than 40 weeks, rolled over to next week when a player failed to pick the Queen of Hearts, and organizers think the prize will top $1 million for the drawing next Wednesday.

The American Legion in Albers, which currently holds a Queen of Hearts raffle with a jackpot that stands at about $9,000, never received a license from the city.

However, Albers Mayor Steve Schomaker said he believes the town and Legion are still complying with state law because the village’s ordinance itself serves as a license.

City attorney Doug Gruenke said Albers’ ordinance allows charitable groups to run raffles without having a specific license. Instead, the ordinance acts as a blanket license for any raffles they want to conduct, he said.

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The ‘Queen of Hearts’ drawing at the Aviston American Legion is drawing a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Derik Holtmann

“My interpretation for the Act is to require establishments to get a permit only if the jurisdiction issues permits and licenses,” Gruenke said. “The statute said you have to have a license, but what if that municipality does not have a process for issuing licenses? That’s what came up.”

Gruenke said someone from the Attorney General’s office suggested and approved the way Albers’ ordinance works.

“As far as I know, we’re doing this legally, and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” Schomaker said.

In Breese, The Knights of Columbus and the American Legion have conducted Queen of Hearts raffles.

“As far as I know, we’re doing this legally and I wouldn’t want to do it any other way.” Albers Mayor Steve Schomaker

The Knights and the Legion didn’t fill out license applications for any raffles. Breese City Hall representatives said they didn’t have any applications on file because “all applications were verbal in person.”

Mayor Charles Hilmes said this oversight stemmed from a combination of inexperience with raffles and a desire to make the legal process as simple as possible for charitable organizations.

“Any organizations there, they want to follow the law, too,” Hilmes said. “The money they’re raising is going to what they need within their organization.”

Hilmes said the city is upgrading the application and, once finished, he will ask the organizations to fill it out.

“Hopefully, then, they can all be legal, and no one from the state is going to come in and say you didn’t do this and that,” he said.

Millstadt also had three Queen of Hearts raffles in the past two years through the Veterans of Foreign Wars, St. James Athletics and Knights of Columbus.

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Cars are parked on the shoulder of Aviston road near the Aviston American Legion as people jockey for parking places for the "Queen of Hearts’ drawing at the Aviston American Legion. The drawing is getting a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Derik Holtmann

While all three organizations have been issued licenses, none were preceded by applications, according to the city. The licenses did not include a maximum prize amount or how much tickets would cost, as appear to be required by state law.

Neglected regulations

Last year, the Nashville American Legion’s Queen of Hearts raffle reached a jackpot of $377,469. Since then, they’ve run three more raffles — the most recent of which started Nov. 1 — that have allowed them to give money to other organizations, such as building a pavilion for veterans at The Haven center in Marion.

Nashville, however, has never passed an ordinance permitting raffles in the city.

Roger Kram and Dan Heggemeier, of the Nashville American Legion, said to their knowledge, the state leaves it up to local municipalities to decide if a raffle license is necessary for organizations. They said when they asked Mayor Erik Rolf about the raffle, he told them they did not need one based on Nashville’s laws.

“We got a letter from the mayor that said we do not have a license requirement. Good luck, and bless you,” Kram said.

Nashville’s American Legion has held four raffles in the past two years. The city has never passed a raffle ordinance.

Kram also said he checked with state authorities to make sure they were doing the raffle correctly. He said they directed him back to his local officials for further guidance.

“In that case, I have fulfilled my obligation. If nothing is available and I have no means of doing it, how can I obtain something that doesn’t exist?” Kram said.

Ultimately, the Legion placed its trust in City Hall to make sure the licensing process was legitimate.

“When it comes to state law on licensing, I’m not familiar with what should take place there,” Kram said. “I can’t even give you a good what-if scenario. There are so many fine points on these laws.”

Many American Legion groups, like Nashville’s, may not be familiar with the particulars of raffle law. One Illinois resident, however, has spent years studying raffle regulations — and she told Nashville in 2016 that the city had a problem.

kathy gilroy
Kathy Gilroy

Kathy Gilroy, an insurance agent who resides in DuPage County, began her crusade against gambling in 1995 when, she says, she saw firsthand how it can ruin lives. Since then, she has researched, scrutinized and called out dozens of gambling events that she believes have not followed local and state laws. She has focused most of her attention on raffles.

In August 2016, a Queen of Hearts game conducted by the VFW in Morris reached a jackpot of $1.6 million. Gilroy reached out to local authorities, telling them Morris’ raffle did not have a legitimate license.

$1.6 million The amount the Morris jackpot had reached when it was suspended for not having a legitimate license.

Hours before the drawing, the raffle was suspended.

Her crusade, however, has not made her very popular with towns or their residents.

People took to social media to blame Gilroy for the Morris shutdown, berating her for disrupting the raffle.

“Kathy Killjoy was the least of what they called me,” Gilroy said.

She said she once complained about a raffle to a police chief in northern Illinois, who told her she needed to “get a (expletive) life.”

Last year, Gilroy turned her attention to Nashville, writing to City Hall and local police.

“The Nashville, IL American Legion is conducting an unlicensed progressive raffle that has reached over a quarter-million dollars,” she wrote. “Since Nashville has never passed an ordinance permitting raffles and setting up a licensing system, all raffles in Nashville are illegal.”

Two days after she sent the fax to the city, she said, the Legion had another drawing.

The non-profit organizations that you’re trying to help, don’t you want to make sure that the money is actually going to help somebody?

Anti-gambling activist Kathy Gilroy

Nashville Police Chief Brian Fletcher said they received Gilroy’s complaint and looked into it, but he said she didn’t know what she was talking about.

“She was saying we have to pass an ordinance for them to do raffles,” Fletcher said. “I checked with a few city attorneys and the mayor, and they said it wasn’t true. It’s kind of automatic, the way I understand it, the state law says they can do it, and if Nashville didn’t want it to happen, then they would have to pass a law banning those.”

110817Dh walking to car
Traffic congests the small town of Aviston after the Queen of Hearts drawing at the Aviston American Legion. The drawing is getting a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Derik Holtmann

Fletcher cited a section of the state law that says counties or municipalities may establish a system to license raffles.

“The key word is may, not shall,” he said. “It was found out the Legion was in compliance with everything they were supposed to do.”

When asked about another section of the law, which states that no one “shall conduct raffles ... without having first obtained a license,” Fletcher said he wasn’t sure about the meaning of that line and would need to look over the section more thoroughly.

Gilroy said state regulations exist for a reason, and when followed properly, they ensure the integrity of the games and provide protection for the organizations, the cities and the people who play the games.

“The non-profit organizations that you’re trying to help, don’t you want to make sure that the money is actually going to help somebody?” Gilroy said. “You want it to be on the up-and-up, and being on the up-and-up is following the law.”

$400,000 The amount the Steeleville jackpot has reached — 15 times over the city’s maximum prize limit of $25,000.

Kram and Heggemeier, of the Nashville Legion, said even though they appreciate having more control over how they conduct Queen of Hearts raffles, they wish there had been more guidance from City Hall when it came to starting the raffle to make sure “we’re doing the right thing.”

Rolf and attorney Bill DeMoss were not available for comment.

A Steeleville American Legion Queen of Hearts raffle has a jackpot that has topped $400,000 — more than 15 times the town’s maximum raffle jackpot limit of $25,000. The city also does not have an application form for raffle licenses.

“It’s one of those things probably where no one caught it at first,” Steeleville Mayor Bob Sutton said. “In my opinion, I think you’ll find that it’s their (the Legion’s) responsibility. If I remember, they even have to sign that they’re responsible to comply with the ordinances.”

Not only is the prize amount not allowed under city ordinances, it has also strained the city, Sutton said.

“Our greatest concern is safety,” Sutton said. “If something happens to someone inside ... if someone has a heart problem or something, you must be able to get into buildings and do rescue work on someone in there. It becomes a real challenge trying to get ambulance service in there.”

110817DH officer at aviston
American Legion Post 1239 commander Dale Rakers and an Aviston police officer wait for the ‘Queen of Hearts’ drawing to happen. The Aviston American Legion is drawing a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Aviston firefighters and police have been assisting with the crowds and security and traffic control during the drawings. Derik Holtmann

Sutton added, however, that the raffles have been extremely beneficial for struggling organizations.

“Let’s face it, it’s really helped some American Legions and VFWs,” he said. “It’s a challenge for them to stay open, to say the least.”

Bars holding a raffle?

Other organizations appear to be at odds with state regulations by holding the raffles at a commercial location, such as a bar.

The state law says raffle licenses “shall be issued only to bona fide religious, charitable, labor, business, fraternal, educational or veterans’ organizations that operate without profit to their members and which have been in existence continuously for a period of 5 years.” It goes on to say that a licensed organization “may rent a premises upon which to determine the winning chance or chances in a raffle only from an organization which is also licensed under this Act.” A for-profit bar, then, would not appear to be a lawful premises to hold a raffle.

In Germantown, the Sons of American Legion holds a Queen of Hearts raffle at the Millside Inn, a tavern.

Marvin Gebke, the owner of the tavern, said the city issued a license for him and the Legion to hold the raffle.

Germantown Village Hall provided a copy of a raffle license for the Sons of American Legion but not for Millside Inn, although the Legion’s license included Gebke’s name under “raffle manager.”

“I don’t charge anything for using the place, I don’t really see what the problem is,” Gebke said.

$150,000 Germantown is considering increasing its maximum prize cap to this amount, rather than the current $30,000.

Village President Duane Ripperda said they consulted with their village attorney, Aaron Epplin, before issuing the license. Epplin said he did not wish to comment for this story.

Ripperda said they went through their lawyer to make sure everything was done legally for the Legion, and Millside Inn won’t receive any of the money raised by the raffle.

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The ‘Queen of Hearts’ drawing at the Aviston American Legion is drawing a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Derik Holtmann

“The whole village is there to help each other. ...We wanted to make sure this is something that could happen without us being a hindrance to them,” Ripperda said. “Organizations in the village are good for everybody; they all help us prosper in some way.”

A representative of the Sons of the American Legion could not be reached for comment.

The jackpot at Millside Inn is up to $9,973. The Village Board plans to vote later this month on increasing the maximum prize amount in the village raffle ordinance from $30,000 to $150,000.

In Waterloo, a Queen of Hearts raffle is being conducted at the Stubborn German Brewing Co., benefiting Saints Peter & Paul Catholic School.

John Green, athletic director at Saints Peter and Paul and raffle organizer, said he checked with local and state authorities to make sure he was doing everything correctly.

“One of the things that was important to me was to make sure all my i’s were dotted and my t’s were crossed, because this could possibly be a large payout, and I don’t want any problems for my school or the fundraiser,” Green said. “These are wonderful fundraisers, and I hope there’s not an issue because these programs help out a lot of organizations.”

Stubborn German’s owner referred questions to Green. Waterloo’s mayor, Tom Smith, and attorney, Daniel Hayes, could not be reached for comment.

Millstadt also has a raffle conducted by St. James School Athletics at a bar — Ott’s Tavern. Ott’s and St. James School could not be reached for comment.

Crowds: A double-edged sword

Aviston Mayor Haukap said the raffle there has brought overwhelming crowds. Those crowds, however, bring money not only to the city, but places beyond its borders as well.

“They gave so much money down to hurricane relief, they gave thousands of dollars to Texas,” he said. “And now they’re giving to our local organizations, like our football programs.”

It’s a benefit for a small community, but we’ve got more people in town than people who live here.

Aviston Mayor Dale Haukap

Haukap said at this point, however, most of the city hopes the raffle will end soon due to the crowds. Each week, they’ve had at least 6,000 people pour into the town, which has a population of about 2,000 and covers about 1.6 square miles.

“It’s a benefit for a small community, but we’ve got more people in town than people who live here,” he said.

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The ‘Queen of Hearts’ drawing at the Aviston American Legion is drawing a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Derik Holtmann

The overcrowding problem is one of the reasons Caseyville revised its ordinances after a raffle last year got so popular that emergency vehicles couldn’t drive down the streets.

Caseyville’s ordinance originally did not have a maximum prize amount specified — an apparent violation of the state’s requirements. Having a maximum prize amount in the license and application is a way that cities can try to control the size of crowds at Queen of Hearts games.

Thousands of people start camping outside of Aviston’s Legion Hall hours before the drawing begins.

Caseyville Mayor G.W. Scott Sr. said after struggling with overcrowding at last year’s $450,000 jackpot at the VFW, the city decided to add a maximum prize amount of $250,000.

He said while the VFW building is only supposed to hold 407 people, hundreds more would flock to the hall each week.

“The VFW can’t handle that many people. The fire department had all kinds of heck,” he said. “You get 5,000 cars down there, you couldn’t get a fire truck down the street.”

Legal ramifications?

The trouble regulating raffles is not just a metro-east problem, said University of Illinois professor John Kindt, who has taught law and economics for almost 40 years and specializes in gambling.

“We all have great sympathy for veteran organizations, but who is overseeing these situations to make sure that mistakes aren’t made? I don’t think anyone is regulating them,” he said.

Bogot, the former attorney for the Gaming Board, said conducting a raffle without a license could also present legal problems for the organization. Losing players could conceivably demand refunds from the raffle if it did not have a legitimate license, Bogot said.

And if someone was injured at an unlawful raffle, the organization’s insurance might not cover it, Bogot said.

“It’d be just like if my house burned down because I had a meth factory,” Bogot said. “The insurance isn’t going to cover it.”

Sutton, Steeleville’s mayor, said if anything of that nature did happen, it would be a problem for the hosts of the raffle, not the city, because it is the organization’s responsibility to be compliant with the town’s ordinances.

110817DH lot full
Parking is at a premium each Wednesday before the ‘Queen of Hearts’ drawing at the Aviston American Legion. The drawing is getting a lot of interest as the prize approaches $1 million. Derik Holtmann

Gilroy said the provisions in the state law are in part designed to protect organizations from fraud.

“Somebody could be pocketing some money every night, and who would know?” Gilroy said. “I mean, they’re just putting on Facebook the pot is $377,000. How do you know it’s not $770,000?

“The temptation for someone to take money gets so real because it’s so big. We’re talking about big sums of money now, not a $100 church raffle.”

Hilmes, the mayor of Breese, said that’s not a big concern.

”I would trust these people with my bank account,” Hilmes said. “They believe in the organizations and the community. They work hard to make their town the best place.”

We’re talking about big sums of money now, not a $100 church raffle.

Anti-gambling activist Kathy Gilroy

Gilroy also said according to state law, if a raffle is found to be illegitimate, all the money should be seized by local law enforcement, and the state’s attorney of the county should seek to have the money forfeited to the county.

The state’s attorneys of Clinton, Washington, Perry, Madison, Jersey and Monroe counties could not be reached for comment for this story.

Randolph County State’s Attorney Jeremy Walker said his office investigates any complaint that it receives, but it doesn’t actively investigate raffles.

“Quite frankly, we have bigger issues to deal with and not enough staff,” Walker said.

The small-town problem

Gilroy said she’s seen cities become more adept at handling raffles once they “get into the routine of it.” Until then, however, the towns may not know what they’re dealing with.

“Most people simply aren’t educated on gambling laws. They think everything is allowed now because you have so much of it,” Gilroy said.

Gilroy said she used to hold the opinion that policing raffles on the local level was better than a statewide regulatory process.

“I’m thinking now it might be better if it was regulated on a statewide basis, because the towns are incapable of doing it, for the most part,” she said.

Little ole Aviston.......triples it’s population on Wednesday nights.

Posted by Aviston Legion on Sunday, November 12, 2017

Breese Mayor Hilmes said it is a challenge to try to make a statewide law fit for a small town.

“The bad thing with Springfield is, they paint everyone with a broad stroke, whether you are in a town of 4,000 or 140,000. They put an added burden on smaller towns,” Hilmes said.

Steevelle’s mayor, Sutton, added that it is difficult for small towns to keep up with changing state laws. Organizations and communities try to stay up-to-date, Sutton said, “But boy, it’s really difficult to keep up with all the state’s laws.”

Gilroy, however, said cities don’t pay enough attention to state law when they write their ordinances.

“I totally blame the village leaders. I mean, what kind of leaders are they?” she said. “I find these people, they don’t even read the law; they don’t even read their own ordinances.”

Raffles: ‘More common, less regulated and worse’

Illinois’ Gaming Board only gets involved in raffles when they’re conducted by an organization or business that also has video-gaming terminals, which fall under state regulations. The Gaming Board can fine or remove the video games from video-gaming licensees that engage in unlicensed gambling.

Bogot, who served as legal counsel to the Gaming Board, said a Gaming Board investigator might only check whether a raffle license was issued to the group or business, but might not look deeper to see if the license was properly issued.

Aviston Mayor Haukap said a Gaming Board employee checked the American Legion’s license but did not ask for their application. He said the employee also told the group their video-gaming license would serve as a raffle license as well. There doesn’t appear to be anything in the state law, however, that says a video-gaming license can serve as a raffle license.

Who is overseeing these situations to make sure that mistakes aren’t made? I don’t think anyone is regulating them.

University of Illinois professor and gambling expert John Kindt

Representatives from the Illinois Department of Revenue, the Illinois Liquor Control Commission and the Attorney General’s office all said their agencies do not regulate raffles. The regulation is up to local counties and municipalities, they said.

Nashville Police Chief Fletcher said he believed it was up to the organization to follow certain regulations, like passing maximum prize amounts.

Gilroy said since she started looking into raffles more than 20 years ago, they have become “more common, less regulated and worse.”

110817Dh drum spin
American Legion Post 1239 commander Dale Rakers rotates the drum containing thousands of tickets during the November 8th drawing for $817,822. The prize rolled over for the November 15th drawing. Derik Holtmann

“Raffles are basically not regulated, the way I can see. It’s almost like they don’t even care. I get pushback from the towns that are supposed to be regulating them,” Gilroy said. “The point is the Raffles Act was passed to regulate these community organizations. They’re not above the law.”

Ryan Keith, a spokesman for state Rep. Robert Rita, who is chairman of the Illinois House Gaming Subcommittee, said Rita is “aware of what’s been going on with raffles.” Keith said Rita, a Democrat from Blue Island, didn’t wish to comment publicly on the issue for now but that he is “watching developments.”

As it stands now, the state doesn’t get a cut of raffle proceeds aside from income taxes on winnings. For other forms of gambling, such as the lottery, casinos, horse-racing and video gaming, the state and city receive a cut off the top. For video gaming, for example, the state receives 25 percent of the profit, and the city gets 5 percent.

Gaining popularity

Queen of Hearts games began proliferating in Southern Illinois in the past two years. The game is simple: Each player buys a ticket in the hope of being drawn to choose a playing card from a board. If chosen, the person flips over a playing card. If it’s the queen of hearts, the person wins the jackpot. If not, the game continues for another week — with new tickets being sold and the jackpot increasing.

Professor Kindt said the popularity and prevalence of raffles could draw money away from other forms of gambling.

“There are only so many gambling dollars available. The more readily accessible and enticing you can make your particular gambling venue, the more that’s going to take away from the state lottery. So the dollars migrate to newer and more seductive types of gambling,” he said.

Denny Tribout, a game seller in Belleville, said he has sold almost 50 Queen of Hearts board games in the metro-east in the past two years.

Denny Tribout, owner of Tribout games and carnival supply in Belleville, said he has sold Queen of Hearts game boards to 45 metro-east locations in the past two years, introducing the game to 33 different towns.

The Queen of Hearts’ reign stretches across the state. The raffles have popped up everywhere from Chicago to Springfield to Carbondale, and across hundreds of different organizations. One raffle in the Champaign area is even being conducted by a country club.

Professor Kindt said he isn’t surprised by the popularity of the Queen of Hearts raffle. Just like any form of gambling, people can get addicted, he said.

“The Queen of Hearts raffle wants you to lose your head,” Kindt said. “Instead, keep your money and keep your head.”

Kaley Johnson: 618-239-2526, @KaleyJohnson6

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