The Billings Outpost

Man acquitted here in check-cashing scheme

By ELWOOD ENGLISH - Special to the Outpost

A man who refused to plead guilty to helping Atlanta con men cash thousands of dollars of checks drawn on Billings businesses was found not guilty on all charges recently by a jury of 12 Yellowstone County Citizens.

Joseph Curtis Morrison Jr. said he thought he was getting hired for a job when two men bought his breakfast, bought him new boots and a coat, and took him for a ride that he thought would get him to the worksite.

According to testimony, Morrison had spent the previous night on a porch in the October cold on Billings’ South Side. He went to the St. Vincent DePaul Society that morning to get free coffee and perhaps find a job. He and another man were approached by two men in a white SUV about the job and taken for a ride.

After breakfast and buying clothes, the men stopped the SUV at a West End bank, produced a check with Morrison’s name on it and asked him to take it in the bank to cash it for use in buying tools for him to use on the job. He cashed the check, gave the men the cash and was given $200 in return.

They then got back in the SUV and drove to a site on Grand Avenue that was across the street from a construction site. Morrison said he thought that was where he was going to work, but the men gave him another check and told him to go into the nearby bank and cash it.

As Morrison did so, he began to worry that something was not right. When he brought the money back out to the men, they gave him another $200. Morrison murmured, “Something is not right here,” and turned and walked into a Holiday Station Store.

Just then a police car drove through the lot, and the two men hopped into their SUV and drove away. That was the last Morrison saw of them. He walked the several miles downtown and never thought much about the October incident until he was arrested the following March. He spent five months in jail and then had to post a $7,500 bond.

County prosecutor Margaret Gallagher told the jury, “This man steals from banks,” even though evidence showed that Morrison had been approached by strangers who had tricked him into thinking he was being hired.

Defense attorney Elizabeth J. Honaker asserted in her opening statement that Joe Morrison was innocent because he had no knowledge that the checks were bad and no intent to commit a crime. After all, he used his own ID and signature to cash the checks in full view of bank video cameras.

That is not the action of a man trying to get away with forgery.

After Gallagher spent most of a day establishing that each of the checks was a forgery and not a genuine check from a Billings plumbing company, and proving, with the videos, that Morrison is the one who cashed the checks, she came up short when she tried to connect Morrison with any knowledge of how the checks were produced.

The jury was out several hours, but came back in the evening with a unanimous verdict clearing Morrison of all counts.

Morrison, his attorney, and friends were beaming with happiness after the decision. Morrison crossed the room and shook hands with the prosecution team. Later, several jurors shook hands with him and wished him well as he left the courthouse. 

The good news is that Morrison is no longer living on the street but is working as a cowboy on a Lame Deer area ranch. 

The real crooks were caught and negotiated suspended sentences, but the former street dweller from Lame Deer and Liz Honaker, his attorney, showed that there can be justice for a big Indian man, even in Billings.

Elwood English is an attorney who shares office space with the attorney Elizabeth J. Honaker. He says he wrote this story because it did not appear local news sources were covering the acquittal even though they had covered the charges being made.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 11:01

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State tries again to change ‘auditor’ title

By SYDNEY GILLETTE - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

There may be no more solemn duty in electoral politics than considering a constitutional amendment, and this year Montanans face such a choice. Of course, it’s not every day you modify the constitution to change a name.

If voters approve C-45 on this November’s ballot, the title of the Montana State Auditor’s Office will become the Commissioner’s Office of Securities and Insurance.

Yes, that is it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because voters have already said “no” to this radical nomenclature proposal. Back in 2006, voters struck down a similar amendment by a nearly 2-1 margin. Not one county supported the change.

This year is different though, according to Monica Lindeen, Montana’s state auditor (or commissioner, depending on whom you ask).

First of all, they’ve already changed the name everywhere else.

Today, the office’s website has one brief mention of its actual name, State Auditor, and everywhere else is branded with “Office of the Commissioner of Securities and Insurance.” All documents released from the office carry the new title, and the media even use Commissioner of Securities and Insurance – or CSI - in referring to Lindeen and the office.

Still Lindeen is pushing for voters to change the constitution. She said it’s about accuracy.

She argues it is not the right name because, despite being Montana’s state auditor, Lindeen doesn’t audit anything. She said that the average Montanan who has a problem with an insurance company or financial adviser – things her office actually oversees – may not know whom to contact.

“If they see State Auditor they won’t call that office,” Lindeen said.

But a bipartisan pair of state representatives is more worried about precedent.

Reps. Mitch Tropila, D-Great Falls, and Nick Schwaderer, R-Superior, opposed putting this to a vote.

“I think it’s a slippery slope to change words and titles we don’t like today,” said Tropila. “In the Montana Constitution, we have the word privacy. What if someone wants to yank that word out? Their argument could be we just changed some wording two years ago.”

Tropila also isn’t worried about the “A” word.

“By having a broad title like auditor, which means to hear and to listen, it is better for the whole scope. Let’s not narrowly define the office in case they take on other responsibilities,” he said.

Lindeen said she doubts the office is going to change and CSI is the best alternative to state auditor.

Rep. Tom Berry, R-Roundup, agrees. He sponsored the bill to place the amendment on the ballot.

Berry recalled a story about friend who had issues with a rogue trader. He had to convince his friend that the right office to contact was the state auditor.

“How many consumers don’t know where to go?” Berry asks. “It’s all about informing and protecting consumers.”

If any of those consumers head to the web, Google at least appears clear on the office’s role. Any combination of two or more of the following terms: Montana, fraud, insurance, securities, or problems and the search engines gives – Lindeen’s office – as the top result.

Berry and Lindeen said that it won’t cost anything to make the change. The changes already made during the rebranding process used existing resources, according to Adam Schafer, deputy commissioner and chief of staff at CSI – or auditor’s office. Few existing documents will have to be adjusted.

It’s still too much, said Tropila. Even having a public employee edit a document is a waste of time and money, he said.

So what happens if the voters once again rise up to say “Save our Auditor”?

Well, not much of anything.

If the amendment fails, the commissioner of securities and insurance name will remain the same where it has been changed, but the office will be called state auditor on the ballot in 2016.

Any confusion at that point will be Lindeen’s fault because she decided to make the change before making it official, said Tropila. 

One thing appears certain: No matter what voters decide on Nov. 4, come Nov. 5 Monica Lindeen will still be calling herself the commissioner of securities and insurance.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 11:00

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Hydropower deal key to PSC candidates

By PEREGRINE FRISSELL - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

Here’s a question that might help you choose between two rivals for a seat on the board that regulates Montana’s biggest power utility.

What’s your take on the Public Service Commission’s approval of NorthWestern Energy’s purchase of $870 million worth of hydropower dams?

The deal would add an extra $5 a month to ratepayers’ bills and is a key point of contention between former Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson and a former legislator Galen Hollenbaugh.

Both Helena men hope to replace Commissioner Bill Gallagher, a Republican, in the PSC’s District 5, which stretches from the Canadian line to the state’s capital city.

Hollenbaugh, a Democrat, said he would have voted against the purchase because it is unfair to ratepayers.

“I won’t be a rubber stamp for corporate rate increases,” he said. “It has been that way for at least four years, and it’s time for a change. It’s a little disheartening.”

He said the PSC should have negotiated a smaller rate increase for consumers and pushed more risk on the corporation.

Johnson, the Republican in the race, backs the PSC’s decision.

“I think the terms of the deal certainly were fair,” he said. “We’ll never know whether or not the commission could have pushed harder. By the time you find that out you’ve driven the utility from the table and it is too late. My sense is they made the right decision.”

Johnson, 62, ran for this seat four years ago and narrowly lost to Gallagher in the primary.

The defeat came shortly after he was pulled over for a DUI on the way back to Helena after visiting friends in Bozeman. He says the experience was a life-changing one that he has learned from.

Before that, he served four years at Montana’s Secretary of State. He lost his bid for re-election to Democrat Linda McCulloch in 2008, and he lost a rematch four years later. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2000 and for the U.S. Senate in 2002.

A lifelong Republican, he volunteered for President Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign and was a staffer for former Congressman Ron Marlenee during the mid-1980s. He’s been a consultant, and once managed Gallatin County’s fairgrounds.

Johnson’s political mantra sounds simple: less government.

“I want to see as little as government involvement in the daily lives in Montanans as possible,” he said. “I don’t believe that government ought to be the first place you go to gain the redress of an issue.”

Hollenbaugh, 46, is running his first campaign for an office other than the Montana Legislature, where he’s served since 2006. He was a vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee in the 2012 session. He works as bureau chief in Montana’s Department of Labor and Industry.

He said he is proud of his ability to work across party lines to get meaningful deals done. He says a Democrat’s perspective would be valuable on a PSC whose current members are all Republicans.

“I would bring a little ballast to the committee,” he said. “I know I don’t have a reputation as standing as a partisan hack. The partisan rancor has crept into the state. It wasn’t like this before.”

Both candidates said they plan on being full-time commissioners if they are elected to the job that pays over $94,000 a year. Commissioners serve four-year terms.

Also running for the PSC this year is Republican Commissioner Travis Kavulla, who is seeking re-election. He faces no opponent.

 in his bid to represent the PSC’s District 1, which stretches from just west of Shelby to the North Dakota border.

Kavulla, a former journalist, cast the lone vote opposing NorthWestern’s hydropower purchase, saying ratepayers could have negotiated a better deal.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 10:58

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Daines, Zinke, Ostlund pegged as vote winners

Brad Molnar

Election Day predictions:

The Montana House and Senate Republican majorities will increase. Not because they have done much to brag about but rather because the Democrats bungled the opportunity handed to them when Republicans almost unanimously put state ownership of federal lands into the party platform. Access to those lands is a sacred cow, and the Democrats just tentatively nibbled around the edges.

An inside source told me the Democrat strategy was to tell their candidates to stay home and they would do the campaigning via direct mail pieces. That is easy but does not unseat incumbents.

I have followed only two Montana House races. Tony O’Donnell, R-Billings, though he made several errors, will unseat incumbent Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, who was a no-show candidate. Laurel, often called the Butte of the East will remain in Republican control with local businessman Vince Ricci, a Republican, defeating perennial Democratic challenger veterinarian Don “Doc” Woerner in what amounted to a sitzkrieg.

John Ostlund will be renamed Landslide Ostlund and retain his seat on the Yellowstone County Commission.

Republican Steve Daines has already prepared his humble acceptance speech to the U.S. Senate. Amanda Curtis, a Democrat, threw away her sliver of a chance when she decided to shrilly preach the liberal doctrine rather that unite conservatives and Libertarians by showing the hypocrisy of Daines’ votes vs. his campaign rhetoric.

Any hope Democrat John Lewis for the U.S. House was chucked overboard when he forgot Rule No. 1. Never ask a question you do not know the answer to. Lewis demanded Ryan Zinke’s missing military fitness reports after relying on the already disproven hypothesis of Navy SEAL Capt. Larry Bailey (See Outpost, Aug. 7) concerning a whopping $211 travel voucher. The ensuing story of a capable, dedicated SEAL commander has blunted Lewis’ Hail Mary, come-from-behind attempt. Not to mention this  is just a really bad year to be a Democrat candidate for any office.

Interestingly, one of two Montana Supreme Court races has caught fire with $700,000 “independent” dollars flowing in. I am not a Mike Wheat fan, but the crap that has been generated against him is embarrassing to me.

On the other hand, Mike Black, a former co-worker at the Montana Department of Justice, has come forward saying that Lawrence VanDyke is not willing to put in the time to study the issues and add to his capacities and lacks the demeanor to be a good judge.

In my experience talking with VanDyke, that is exactly right. After waiting three days to help him win via planning winning, low-cost campaign techniques I was rebuffed with, “I do not want to learn how to campaign.”

On the other hand, VanDyke is very intelligent and will learn quickly even if against his will. His victory would hopefully be a cautionary note for the other justices. Mike Wheat is a liberal, activist judge in a state that is tired of liberal activists, period. VanDyke will and should win. That would have been my gift to the remaining justices.

Jim Rice should lose for the same reasons Wheat should. But he is a pro-life, activist liberal, so the guns were massed on Wheat. I served in the Montana Legislature with Rice in 1993. He was a follower and political opportunist then and has not changed his stripes.

Rice’s opponent, David Herbert, spent the entire campaign at the Yellowstone Pachyderm Club asking local legislative candidates what they thought of a 1906 decision on jury nullification, then arguing with them. Rice will win in a landslide and misinterpret the message. Next time, Jim.

Brad Molnar has been in elective politics for 24 years.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 10:32

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Public Safety Levy 101: Making sense of issue

By STEPHEN DOW - For The Outpost

One especially complicated issue on the ballot this year is the public safety mill levy. It’s likely that you have some questions about it, so here are some facts to consider before you place your vote.

Q: Do we really need a public safety mill levy?

A. The city of Billings has grown over 25 percent during the past decade – from 94,000 residents to 109,000. During that time, the number of police officers on the force has also grown – but only by 10 percent (from 128 officers to 141).

Crime has also increased in the past decade. Drug-related crimes have risen 21 percent while aggravated assault cases have risen 96 percent.

Meanwhile, the budget for the Billings Police Department is only about 7.6 percent of the city’s budget. This is the smallest police budget for any large city in Montana – including Missoula, Bozeman, Butte and Helena.

Q: Why are we voting on this anyway?

A: The city’s charter limits the number of mills levied each year to 74 – unless residents vote otherwise.

Q: What will happen if the mill levy is approved?

A: The levy, if approved, would start in the 2015-2016 fiscal year.  The city’s public safety budget is currently $38 million. By 2025, that budget would increase to $60 million.

During the first five years of the levy, the city plans to hire 27 public safety officials. This will include 13 police officers, six firefighters, an animal control officer, a police clerk, a fire administrative support person, five 911 dispatchers, an assistant city attorney and a paralegal.

The money from the mill levy would also cover the costs needed to maintain the current services provided. This includes paying salaries and benefits for current public safety officials. The costs of fuel, equipment, vehicles and training would also be covered by the levy.

Q: What will happen if it’s not approved?

A: Fire Chief Paul Dextras has stated that not passing the levy could result in increased fire insurance rates, unstaffed fire stations and the loss of 50 public safety officials by the 2017/2018 fiscal year.

Q: Why would we have to lose safety officials if the levy isn’t passed? Couldn’t we keep employing the people that we already have?

A:  Our state reapportions property taxes in six-year cycles, which has the effect of flattening out the city’s revenues. Thus, the city’s property tax income has basically leveled off. This is why the city’s steady growth cannot pay for the public safety officials needed to provide the current levels of service. City projections predict that a $20 million levy would be needed to simply maintain the current level of services provided.

Q: How much would this costing me?

A: In the first fiscal year that the levy would be implemented (2015/16), 12 mills would be levied and produce approximately $2 million for public safety.  Thus, in 2015, the owner of a $400,000 home would pay approximately $62 in additional property taxes.

By the 2025/2026 fiscal year, 125 mills would be levied each year and produce approximately $22.8 million for public safety. Thus, in 2025, the owner of a $400,000 home would pay approximately $750 in additional property taxes. This means that these homeowners would have to pay approximately $50 more each month when paying property taxes.

According to Montana state law, property taxes are the only way to pay for public safety costs.

Last Updated on Thursday, 30 October 2014 10:30

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Wheat, VanDyke clash over Supreme Court seat

By LAURA SCHEER - Community News Service - UM School of Journalism

The Montana Supreme Court could have decided one of this year’s election campaigns long before November – a race for a seat on that very court.

In April, a district judge struck Solicitor General Lawrence VanDyke’s name from the ballot after ruling he had not been admitted to the bar at least five years prior to the November election.

But the high court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled VanDyke was eligible, and the race between VanDyke and Supreme Court Justice Mike Wheat was on. Since then the two have campaigned hard, with VanDyke accusing Wheat of being a partisan Democrat and Wheat countering VanDyke is a conservative activist with few Montana ties.

VanDyke, who was hired by Republican Attorney General Tim Fox in January 2013, said trial lawyers who support Wheat brought the lawsuit.

“It was a win-win for Wheat,” VanDyke said in an email. “Even if they lost in court, they crippled my ability to campaign effectively for months, forced me to rack up huge legal bills and tied up my resources and energies in litigation.”

Wheat said that he was not involved in the case, although admitted knowing the lawyers involved. Instead of his opponent’s eligibility, Wheat said he wants to focus on his own professional record in his race for a full eight-year term.

Wheat is running for the first time, having been appointed to the court by former Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer in 2010.

“I think it’s important for people in the court to have a lot of experience, both in life and professionally,” Wheat said.

For Wheat, part of that experience is a term in the Montana State Senate as a Democrat from 2003 to 2005. It’s that experience that VanDyke is focusing on in his campaign to oust him.

“Before he was appointed to the bench a few years ago, Mike Wheat was a partisan politician who repeatedly ran for political office,” VanDyke said.

Wheat is unapologetic about his political past. “Being on the Legislature is one of the experiences in my life that helps me make better decisions,” he said, “but it does not dictate those decisions.”

He added that he is not alone in having served in the Legislature, pointing to current justice and former Republican legislator Jim Rice.

His resume also includes 27 years of running a private law practice out of Bozeman and time as a criminal prosecutor in Butte-Silver Bow County.

Thanks to the Supreme Court, Wheat faces a Montanan whose legal career led him around the country before returning to Montana to take the solicitor general post. After graduating from Montana State University with a degree in engineering, VanDyke attended Harvard Law School, where he wrote for the Harvard Law Review.

He worked at one of the nation’s most prestigious law firms in Washington, D.C., and Dallas before taking a job as assistant solicitor general in Texas.

Although he does not have as much experience practicing law in Montana as Wheat, VanDyke said his work in the attorney general’s office has quickly shaped his understanding of Montana law.

And he said he is driven to run by his concern over what he calls “results-oriented” judging.

“Results-oriented judging is when you pick the result you want and then you write an opinion to get there,” VanDyke said in a judicial forum in September. “We need judges who apply the law as it expresses the will of the people not reading their own will into the law.”

Although the Supreme Court seat is a nonpartisan one, a look at donations to the two lawyers shows a clear party preference for each candidate. VanDyke has attracted several out-of-state donors from Texas, Virginia and Washington, D.C., as well as noted conservative activist Greg Gianforte, his wife and their family foundation. He has also received support from the Carbon County Republican Women’s political party committee and the Montana Gas and Oil political action committee.

Almost all of Wheat’s contributions are from in-state donors and the left side of the aisle, including the Montana AFL-CIO political action committee, and the Montana Education Association and the Montana Federation of Teachers political action committee, according to the records.

Between the rhetoric and the campaign donations, the nonpartisan race between Wheat and VanDyke has definitely taken on the feel of a partisan street fight, but how much voters know or care remains to be seen.

Last Updated on Thursday, 23 October 2014 14:59

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Scott honored with award

The Billings Chamber of Commerce and its Board of Directors has announced the selection of Tom Scott with First Interstate Bank as the 2014 Lifetime Achievement honoree.

This award recognizes an outstanding individual who dedicated his or her career to improving the business climate in our community while giving back to improve our quality of life.

“No one better deserves this type of recognition,” says Chamber Board Chair Ron Yates. “Tom and three generations of the Scott family worked tirelessly operating and expanding First Interstate BancSystem throughout Montana and Wyoming. Tom’s efforts, vision and strong leadership is universally recognized and widely respected.”

Upon hearing he’d been selected for this award, Mr. Scott provided the following statement: “I’m shocked and honored to be selected by the Billings Chamber of Commerce as this year’s recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. It is truly humbling to receive such recognition. Billings has been a part of my life for many years, and it will always be a community that I consider home. Thank you for this great honor.”

Tom Scott was born in Sheridan, Wyo., and grew up on the family ranch, beginning his banking career in 1969.

 He and his wife, Joan, moved to Billings in 1970 and as the family’s banking interests expanded, Mr. Scott’s responsibilities focused on managing a growing, multi-bank holding company. He currently serves as chairman of the board of First Interstate BancSystem Inc. and served as its chief executive officer from 1978 to 2003, and as a director since 1971.

Mr. Scott’s service includes numerous boards of nonprofit organizations including Leadership Montana’s Governing Board, the Federal Reserve Bank Board of Minneapolis, and the Montana Economic Development Action Group.

Mr. Scott received the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Billings Chamber Annual Meeting luncheon on Sept. 18.

Last Updated on Thursday, 16 October 2014 12:52

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MontanaPBS, Montana Public Radio Plan Election-Season Broadcasts

MISSOULA – Through personal profiles, debates and political analysis, MontanaPBS and Montana Public Radio (MTPR) will help Montanans get to know their United States Congress candidates beyond the advertising and sound bites.

Two documentaries profiling the U.S. House and U.S. Senate candidates will broadcast at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 9, on MontanaPBS. “Lone Representative: Zinke or Lewis” will profile House candidates John Lewis and Ryan Zinke.

Producer Anna Rau said neither candidate has much political experience. “This race is very much about personality and the candidates’ beliefs, since there is very little political record to dig through,” she said. “So the show focuses on their ethics, their upbringing and their political philosophies to inform voters.”

At 7:30 p.m. the U.S. Senate candidate profile “From Both Sides: Curtis vs. Daines” will introduce Amanda Curtis and Steven Daines as individuals, said producer Katie Gilbertson.

“But the candidates also talk about issues they believe Montanans want them to focus on in D.C., and they answer to past votes they’ve taken,” Gilbertson said.

In addition to these two programs, MontanaPBS and MTPR will partner with Montana Television Network stations to broadcast debates between Lewis and Zinke on Saturday, Oct. 4, and Curtis and Daines on Monday, Oct. 20. Both programs will begin at 6 p.m.

The debates will be followed by political analysis. Students and faculty from the UM School of Journalism will provide fact-checking analysis after the Senate debate. The debates also will broadcast on Yellowstone Public Radio.

MontanaPBS and MTPR will broadcast live election coverage on Tuesday, Nov. 4. On Nov. 5, MontanaPBS will review the election with a half-hour special that analyzes the results – from Montana’s Congressional delegation to the State House.


Last Updated on Thursday, 02 October 2014 16:13

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Coordinator named at Y

Mary Bishop has been appointed the Youth Program coordinator for the Billings Family YMCA.

Born and raised in Great Falls, Mary Bishop earned her bachelor of arts degree in liberal studies with English emphasis degree at Montana State University Billings, and was certified by the state to be a primary preschool teacher in 2011.

With eight years of experience in a preschool teaching, Bishop has been hired as the YMCA’s afternoon preschool teacher, and will also help coordinate afterschool programs and summer camp activities at the Y.

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 September 2014 10:52

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Poaching reward offered

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks game wardens are offering a reward for information about a mule deer buck that was killed illegally south of Columbus over the weekend.

Game warden Paul Luepke said the mule deer buck was shot illegally sometime late Saturday or early Sunday on private land eight miles south of Columbus. The poacher removed most of the meat, but left the head and antlers, he said.

FWP is offering a reward of as much as $1,000 for information leading to a conviction of the persons responsible for the illegal kill.

Anyone with information about the crimes is encouraged to call Luepke at (406) 690-8888 or FWP’s 24-hour wildlife tip line at 1-800-TIP-MONT (800-847-6668).

The 1-800-TIP-MONT program is a toll-free number where people can report violations of fish, wildlife or park regulations. Callers may remain anonymous. It is similar to the well-known Crimestoppers program and offers rewards for information resulting in conviction of persons who abuse Montana’s natural, historic or cultural resources.

Last Updated on Thursday, 21 August 2014 15:22

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