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Grassley asks about reports of Justice Department threat to a news reporter at a public meeting PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Grassley Press   
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 14:47

WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley has asked for a complete accounting of how the Department of Justice is responding to an incident last month in Louisiana where a senior civil rights lawyer for the department reportedly threatened a journalist about getting “on the Department of Justice’s bad side” if the reporter quoted the lawyer.  The alleged incident occurred at a meeting advertised as a public event to address concerns about employment practices of the local fire department.

 

In a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Grassley asked if the Department of Justice is conducting an investigation and if not, why not.  Grassley also asked for details about the Justice Department’s “special rules” for statements reportedly cited by the department lawyer at the meeting.  And, he asked for the justification and an explanation of the threat reportedly leveled by the department official if the reporter didn’t comply with orders about not quoting her.

 

Grassley said reports of the incident in New Iberia, Louisiana, including a complaint by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, are troubling and, if accurate, “confirm that there is a complete disconnect between the President’s words about transparency and the actual conduct of his Administration.”  Grassley referred to two memoranda issued by President Obama purportedly designed to usher in a “new era of open government” and to comments from White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew as recently as July 1, that the Obama Administration “has been the most transparent administration ever.”

 

Click here for Grassley’s July 17 letter to Holder.  Below is the text of the letter of inquiry.

 

July 17, 2012

 

Via Electronic Transmission

 

The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.                           

Attorney General                       

U.S. Department of Justice                       

950 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.                          

Washington, DC 20530                         

 

Dear Attorney General Holder:

 

I write to express my concern about reports of an incident at a June 12, 2012 public meeting in New Iberia, Louisiana involving Rachel Hranitzky, a Senior Trial Attorney in the Civil Rights Division.[1] It is my understanding that a formal complaint about the incident has been sent to the Department of Justice.  I also understand that letters requesting information have been sent to Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez by Senator David Vitter, Congressman Jeff Landry and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

 

The June 22, 2012 letter from the Reporters Committee summarized the reports on the incident as follows:

 

It is our understanding that on [June 12, 2012], Ms. Hranitzky arrived at the meeting and immediately asked if any journalists were present. When a Daily Iberian reporter attending the meeting responded in the affirmative, she informed him that he could neither record the meeting nor quote her statements. According to other attendees, the meeting had been advertised as a public meeting intended to address concerns with the city fire department’s hiring and promotion process.  However, citing ‘special rules’ of the Department of Justice for agency attorneys, Ms. Hranitzky instructed that her statements be neither recorded nor quoted. When the reporter questioned this instruction on the basis that Ms. Hranitzky was speaking at a public meeting, she apparently threatened him with the possibility that the DOJ could call his editors and publisher, and warned that he would not ‘want to get on the Department of Justice’s bad side.’ Furthermore, it is our understanding that Ms. Hranitzky demanded the reporter leave the meeting, although—after making his objection known but agreeing not to quote her—he was ultimately allowed to remain.

 

According to one report on the incident, Ms. Hranitzky “`grew belligerent and threatening’” while speaking with the reporter.[2] After the meeting, she apparently told the reporter that she had been quoted in the past and gotten in trouble with the DOJ.[3] More specifically, Ms. Hranitzky told the reporter that the DOJ “`keeps a short leash on how their attorneys are quoted and she could get in big trouble if she were quoted in a newspaper.’”[4]

 

As you are well aware, on his first full day in office, President Obama declared openness and transparency to be touchstones of his administration, and ordered agencies to make it easier for the public to get information about the government.  Specifically, he issued two memoranda written in grand language and purportedly designed to usher in a “new era of open government.”[5] As recently as July 1, the White House Chief of Staff, Jack Lew, told a television audience that the Obama Administration “has been the most transparent administration ever.”[6]

 

The reports about the incident in New Iberia and the existence of a DOJ policy or “special rules” which were the cause of the incident, are troubling.  If accurate, the reports further confirm that there is a complete disconnect between the President’s words about transparency and the actual conduct of his Administration.

Transparency and open government must be more than just pleasant sounding words found in memos and sound bites in television interviews.  They are essential to the functioning of a democratic government.  Moreover, if the reports about the incident and the existence of a DOJ policy or DOJ “special rules” are accurate, it would amount to a raw abuse of power and a complete disregard for the First Amendment and state open meetings laws.

I am seriously concerned about the reports regarding the incident in New Iberia.  Accordingly, please respond to the following questions and requests for information:

1.            Is the DOJ, or the DOJ Inspector General, conducting an investigation of the incident in New Iberia?

 

2.            If the DOJ is conducting an investigation, identify who is conducting it and describe in detail the scope of the investigation.  If the investigation is being conducted by members of the Civil Rights Division, explain how they do not have a conflict of interest.  If the DOJ is not conducting an investigation, explain why no investigation has been commenced.

 

3.            If the DOJ is conducting an investigation, provide a copy of the final report from that investigation when it is completed.

 

4.            Set forth in detail the DOJ’s version of the events that took place at the public meeting in New Iberia.

 

5.            If the reports are accurate and Ms. Hranitzky told the reporter that he could not quote anything she said at the public meeting, provide a citation to the legal authority justifying that statement.  If there is no legal authority supporting the statement, expressly acknowledge that fact.

 

6.            Does the DOJ have a policy or “special rules,” written or unwritten, regarding the recording or quotation of statements made by its employees at public meetings?  If there is a written policy or written rules, provide a copy.  If there is an unwritten policy or unwritten rules, describe the policy or rules in detail.

 

7.            If the DOJ has a policy or “special rules,” written or unwritten, regarding the recording or quotation of statements made by its employees at public meetings, identify: (a) when that policy or those rules were initiated, (b) who is the author of the policy or rules and (c) the rationale or justification for the adoption of the policy or rules.  Also, identify the legal authority supporting the existence of such a policy or such rules given the protections for freedom of speech and freedom of the press under the First Amendment.  If such analysis was previously conducted and is set forth in a document, provide a copy of that document.

 

8.            According to the reports, Ms. Hranitzky told the reporter that unless he complied with her orders about not quoting her, the DOJ might contact his editors or publisher and he would not want to get on the DOJ’s “bad side.”  Have DOJ employees been instructed to use or had it suggested to them that they could use the DOJ “bad side” statement or any other similar threat tactic when dealing with members of the media?  If so, set forth in detail (a) the circumstances under which the instructions or suggestions were made and (b) the justification for such an instruction or suggestion being given.

 

9.            Has the DOJ previously disciplined or reprimanded its employees, in any manner, whether officially or unofficially, if the statements they make at public meetings are quoted by the media?  If so, please explain in detail the circumstances under which such discipline has occurred and/or could occur.

 

10.        The reports on the incident in New Iberia referenced a DOJ policy or “special rules” related to employees’ interactions with members of the media and their speaking at public meetings.  Even if no official policy or rules exist, is the DOJ investigating whether any practices exist or whether orders have been given to DOJ employees by their supervisors about the employees’ interactions with members of the media and their speaking at public meetings.  If the DOJ is conducting an investigation, identify who is conducting it and describe in detail the scope of the investigation.  Also, if the DOJ is conducting an investigation, provide a copy of the final report from that investigation.  If the DOJ is not conducting an investigation, explain why no investigation has been commenced.

 

11.        If a DOJ employee speaks at a public meeting in his or her official capacity, is the reporting on or recording of the employee’s statements subject to state open meetings laws, such as the one that exists in Louisiana?  If not, explain why you maintain that the statements are not subject to open meetings laws.  Also, if not, identify what laws or rules, the DOJ is subject to or follows in connection with the recording of a public meeting at which a DOJ employee speaks in his or her official capacity.  If your answer includes a reference to internal DOJ rules, provide a copy.

 

12.        Was the meeting in New Iberia subject to Louisiana’s open meetings law?  If you maintain that it was not, explain your response in detail.

 

13.        Since the publication of the reports on the incident in New Iberia, have DOJ employees been given any instructions or training on how they are to interact with individuals, including members of the media, attending public meetings?  If so, and if those instructions or that training was in written format, provide a copy.  If so, and if the instructions or training was not in written format, describe it in detail.  If there have not been any instructions or training given, explain why that is so.

 

14.        Since 2007, has the DOJ received any complaints, whether informal or formal, regarding statements or conduct by its employees at a public meeting, proceeding or event similar to Ms. Hranitzky’s reported statements and conduct in  New Iberia?  If so, identify each such incident in detail.  For each such incident, provide a copy of the written complaint or report that the DOJ received and a copy of any written response by the DOJ.

 

15.        Provide copies of all written responses by the DOJ to any inquiries, letters or complaints about the incident at the meeting in New Iberia.

 

16.        Provide copies of the notices or advertisements for the meeting in New Iberia.

 

17.        Provide copies of any public statements or comments made by the DOJ on the incident at the meeting in New Iberia.

 

18.        Identify the case or cases which were the subject of the meeting in New Iberia, including the case name(s) and docket number(s).

 

19.        Provide a copy of the ruling or consent decree issued in the case or cases which were the subject of the meeting in New Iberia.

 

20.        Provide copies of any written statements or comments issued by the DOJ regarding the case or cases which were the subject of the meeting in New Iberia.

 

21.        Provide copies of any written DOJ policy, directive or guidance regarding DOJ employees speaking with members of the media.

 

I ask that you provide written answers and documents by August 17, 2012.

 

Sincerely,

Charles E. Grassley

Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee

 

Cc: Hon. Patrick J. Leahy, Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee

 

 



[1] Matthew Beaton, “`DOJ practice’ slammed by politicos, group,” The Daily Iberian  (July 8, 2012) (available at http://www.iberianet.com/news/doj-practice-slammed-by-politicos-group/article_32a8d028-c8b7-11e1-aa3d-0019bb2963f4.html).

[2] Matthew Volkov, “Civil Rights Division Lawyer Under Fire for Threatening Reporter at Public Hearing,”  Mainjustice.Com (July 9, 2012) (available at http://www.mainjustice.com/2012/07/09/civil-rights-division-lawyer-under-fire-for-threatening-reporter-at-public-hearing/print/).

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Memorandum from President Barak Obama Re: Freedom of Information Act (Jan. 21, 2009) (available at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/freedom-information-act); Memorandum from President Barak Obama Re: Transparency and Open Government (Jan. 21, 2009) (available at www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/transparency-and-open-government).

[6] Josh Feldman, “Candy Crowley Calls Out President Obama For Executive Privilege Hypocrisy On Fast & Furious,” Mediaite.com (July 1, 2012) (available at http://www.mediaite.com/tv/candy-crowley-calls-out-president-obama-for-executive-privilege-hypocrisy-on-fast-furious/).

 
FDA spying on whistleblowers PDF Print E-mail
News Releases - General Info
Written by Grassley Press   
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 14:36

Grassley shines spotlight on FDA spying on whistleblowers

Senator demands accountability for effort to muzzle public safety concerns

WASHINGTON – Senator Chuck Grassley is keeping the pressure on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fully account for its aggressive campaign to spy on protected, personal email messages of agency employees and then retaliate against them after they raised concerns to Congress about the safety of drugs and devices approved by the FDA.

“What the FDA has done has serious implications for the right of federal employees to make valuable protected disclosures about waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or public safety to Congress or anyone else.  This kind of communication is protected for good reason,” Grassley said.  “The FDA’s crusade contradicts the pledge the current commissioner made to create a culture that values whistleblowers, and the scope and tone of the surveillance effort reveals an agency more concerned about protecting itself than protecting the public, which ironically is the agency’s mission.”

Grassley said the internal documents that the FDA never wanted the public to see make the FDA “sound more like the East German Stasi than a consumer protection agency in a free country.”  The documents refer to whistleblowers as “collaborators,” congressional staff as “ancillary actors,” and newspaper reporters as “media outlet actors.”

In a lengthy letter to the FDA Commissioner yesterday, Grassley revealed that the spying was “explicitly authorized, in writing” by the FDA counsel’s office and called on Commissioner Margaret Hamburg to stop stonewalling requests for information about the surveillance effort.  Grassley began his investigation of this effort in January in response to whistleblower allegations.  He received no response, despite promises to the contrary, until last Friday night (plus attachment), on the eve of a New York Times story about 80,000 pages of internal FDA documents that the FDA’s contractor had posted on the Internet, apparently by accident.

Grassley said the FDA’s contention that employees were free to communicate is “ludricrous” because documents indicate the agency was specifically targeting whistleblowers who were subsequently fired or had their contract lapse.  In addition, repeated investigations by the Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services did not substantiate FDA accusations that confidential information was leaked to the press, which the FDA has tried to say in order to justify its actions.

Also yesterday, Grassley asked the FDA contractor, Quality Associates, for an accounting of how the information ended up on the Internet and about how many other federal government agencies it has contracts with and the size and scope of those contracts.

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GAO report on poor management of foreign student visa program PDF Print E-mail
News Releases - General Info
Written by Grassley Press   
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 12:54

NEW GAO REPORT CAN BE FOUND HERE 

SENATORS: NEW WATCHDOG REPORT REVEALS SHAM SCHOOLS ARE PEDDLING STUDENT VISAS TO FOREIGN NATIONALS—FRAUD SCHEME COULD OPEN A BACKDOOR FOR TERRORISTS TO ENTER U.S.

More Than 1 in 3 Flight Schools That Admit Foreign Students Are Not Even Accredited By FAATwo 9/11 Hijackers Had Applied for Student Visas To Attend Flight Schools

A Decade After Congress Mandated Audit of All Schools That Issue Student Visas, Feds Have Only Recertified 19% of Schools

Senators Announce Hearing, Legislation to Stop Fraud In Student Visa Program

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On Tuesday, U.S. Senators Charles E. Schumer (D-NY), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) released a disturbing report by an independent watchdog revealing that the federal government has unknowingly permitted sham colleges and universities to award student visas to foreign nationals. The report, by the independent Government Accountability Office (GAO), warns that the fraud scheme could make the nation vulnerable to potential terrorists seeking to enter the United Sattes.

The report found that a “significant number” of schools certified to give out visas to international students are not even certified by the state in which they operate. Of 434 flight schools that provide student visas, an astounding 167—or 38 percent—are not accredited by the Federal Aviation Administration. This finding is especially worrisome since two of the 9/11 hijackers successfully applied for student visas to attend flight schools.

The GAO report was requested by the four senators after a high-profile case of a sham school in California surfaced in February 2011. Tri-Valley University had enrolled over 1,500 foreign students until a federal investigation exposed the school as a scam. Tri-Valley officials were caught giving F-1 visas to undercover agents, posing as foreign nationals, who explicitly professed no intention of attending classes.  Students paid $5,400 per semester in tuition to the school to obtain those student visas until the school was shut down.

The GAO report found that the Tri-Valley case is part of a larger trend of sham schools defrauding the student visa program. In the aftermath of 9/11, Congress demanded that the Department of Homeland Security complete an audit of the roughly 10,000 schools in the U.S. that provide student visas. But the report found that eight years after the deadline for the completion of the audit, federal authorities have only recertified 19 percent of visa-issuing schools.

“The report shows that more than a decade after the 9/11 attacks, the student visa program remains dangerously vulnerable to terrorists,” said Senator Schumer. “These sham schools are providing a dangerous backdoor entrance to the United States. The bogus school in California exposed last year was really just the tip of the iceberg."

“More than a decade after 9/11 hijackers used student visas to fraudulently enter the United States, this GAO report makes it clear that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement still has no process in place to monitor whether foreign students are actually enrolled in school, or even whether the schools they claim to attend are legitimate,” said Senator Feinstein. “With more than 850,000 foreign students enrolled in 10,000 U.S. schools at the beginning of this year, it’s clear that monitoring activities of students in this country on visas and shutting down sham schools that serve as fronts for criminal activity are questions of national security.”

“As we keep working to fully secure our nation’s borders, we’ve got to lock any back door that people are using to illegally enter our country,” said Senator McCaskill. “Sham universities undermine the student visa program and pose a serious threat to national security. Federal officials need to take the recommendations of this report seriously, and put proper safeguards in place.”

“The Obama administration needs to promptly adopt the independent GAO recommendations and make enforcement of the guidelines for the foreign student visa program its top priority,” said Senator Grassley.  “This is a national security matter.  Foreign student visas were issued to terrorists who attacked the United States both in 1993 and on September 11.  A lesson should have been learned, particularly with regards to flight schools, but Homeland Security officials seem slow to react and have a poor track record in identifying fraud.  Today, participation in the program is growing, yet federal agency officials responsible for keeping track of the students continue to take a lax approach and knowingly, or not, continue to make it fairly easy for fraudulent activity.  That’s completely unacceptable, and it’s time for Secretary Napolitano to manage the program so it can work as Congress intended and national security requires.”

In response to the report, Schumer announced Tuesday that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security will be holding a hearing on July 24 to assess Congress’ options for reform of the Student Exchange Visitor Program (SEVP).  Witnesses at the hearing will include Rebecca Gambler, the author of the GAO’s report, and John Woods, Assistant Director for National Security Investigations at ICE.

The senators are also introducing legislation to implement many of the GAO report’s recommendations. Among other provisions, the planned bill would: require schools and universities to be certified by the state in which they operate before they can issue student visas; require flight schools to be certified by the FAA before they can issue student visas; bar schools from issuing student visas while they are under federal investigation, and; stiffen penalties for officials involved in the operation of sham schools.

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Lt. Governor Simon welcomes nation’s lieutenant governors to Illinois PDF Print E-mail
News Releases - General Info
Written by Justin Stofferahn   
Tuesday, 17 July 2012 09:16

Conference to promote Illinois tourism, spotlight education and veterans issues

CHICAGO – July 17, 2012. Lt. Governor Sheila Simon will host the nation’s lieutenant governors in Chicago this week as the National Lieutenant Governors Association (NLGA) convenes its 50th annual conference in Illinois.

Expected to generate over $600,000 in hotel, transportation, restaurant and tourism revenue, 30 lieutenant governors and their staffs will meet at the Drake Hotel on Wednesday through Friday to identify policies that can improve college completion rates, link veterans to employment, increase access to locally grown food and combat domestic violence, among other issues.

Simon, the NLGA’s Midwest Region Chair, and Governor Pat Quinn will conduct the conference’s opening ceremonies Wednesday morning.

“I value this opportunity to showcase Chicago and share innovative strategies to grow our state and nation," Lt. Governor Simon said.

Following Wednesday’s opening remarks, Simon will introduce the conference’s opening session on higher education. Jeff Mays, executive director of the Illinois Business Roundtable, and Dewayne Matthews, vice president of policy and strategy at the Lumina Foundation, will discuss higher education policies that can improve college certificate and degree completion rates and connect graduates to good-paying jobs.

Simon recently advocated for passage of legislation that aims to reduce remedial needs at colleges and universities by implementing the state's first math curricula for middle and high schools. The models should lead to more high school seniors enrolling in math courses that prepare them for college and careers. Building on this success, Simon is asking the NLGA to pass a resolution in support of state-specific solutions that will boost high school graduation and college readiness.

“America’s lieutenant governors are making a difference and as we welcome them to Illinois, this is a wonderful opportunity to share best practices and develop solutions,” Governor Quinn said. “We are grateful for our own Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, who is leading the way on education as she pushes to reach our goal of 60 percent graduates by the year 2025.”

On Friday, Simon will moderate a discussion on the role states should play domestic violence prevention, and be joined by the Acting Director of the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women, Bea Hanson. The Violence Against Women Act, which enhances the investigation and prosecution of violent crimes against women, is up for reauthorization before Congress.

 

Simon's office is piloting a program that connects domestic violence survivors in underserved areas with family law attorneys for free via Skype. The Virtual Legal Clinic currently operates out of shelters in Peoria and Jacksonville at no new cost to taxpayers and is expected to expand later this year.

 

The NLGA is a bipartisan, nonprofit, professional organization for elected officials who are first in line of succession to the governors in the United States and five territorial jurisdictions. Since 2000, at least 20 lieutenant governors have succeeded governors, including former Lt. Governor and current Governor Pat Quinn. The NLGA last held a conference in Chicago 50 years ago.

###

 
Braley Calls for House Hearing into CFTC Oversight of Peregrine Financial Group PDF Print E-mail
News Releases - General Info
Written by Jeff Giertz   
Monday, 16 July 2012 14:21

Alleged misappropriation of investor funds for twenty years calls into question CFTC’s oversight

 

Washington, D.C. – Rep. Bruce Braley (IA-01) today called on the US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to investigate the Commodities Futures Trading Commission’s role in allowing Peregrine Financial Group of Cedar Falls to apparent misappropriate $200 million of investor funds over 20 years in what could be the largest financial fraud in Iowa history.

 

In a letter to committee Chairman Darrell Issa and Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, Braley requested a hearing into Peregrine Financial Group and the CFTC’s oversight of commodities trading.  Braley is a member of the House Oversight Committee.

 

“It’s shocking to think that Peregrine was defrauding its customers for more than 20 years,” Braley said.  “My question is, where were the regulators who should have stopped this long ago and how did Peregrine so easily fool them?

 

“It’s the job of regulators to protect farmers, families, and businesses who have invested in futures. I’m greatly concerned that this misappropriation of funds was allowed to continue for so long before it was discovered.  Iowans deserve answers – especially those who were victims of Peregrine’s fraud.”

 

In court filings, federal prosecutors allege that Russell Wassendorf, Sr., CEO of Peregrine Financial Group, admitted to falsifying bank statements and defrauding customers for 20 years.

 

The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has said that Peregrine has “used customer funds for purposes other than those intended by its customers.” According to CFTC, the money has been misused for years and as many as 1,845 investors are missing their money.

 

The full text of Braley’s letter to Issa and Cummings follows.

 

--

 

July 16, 2012

 

The Honorable Darrel Issa                          

Chairman                      

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform                        

B3540-A, Rayburn HOB                           

Washington, DC  20515                         

 

The Honorable Elijah Cummings

Ranking Member

Committee on Oversight and Government Reform

2471 Rayburn HOB

Washington, DC  20515

 

 

Dear Chairman Issa and Ranking Member Cummings:

 

I am writing to bring to your attention the apparent misappropriation of more than $200 million in client funds by Peregrine Financial Group, an Iowa-based futures trading company. According to the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Peregrine has “used customer funds for purposes other than those intended by its customers.”

 

According to a criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney on Friday, Russell Wassendorf, Sr., Founder and CEO of Peregrine Financial Group, admitted that he was defrauding his customers for as long as 20 years.  According to court documents, Peregrine had as many as 1,845 investors – and it is unclear whether their money will ever be recovered.

 

It is the job of regulators to protect farmers, families, and businesses who have invested in futures.  I’m greatly concerned that this misappropriation of funds was allowed to continue so long before being discovered.

 

In the wake of the MF Global debacle and these new allegations at Peregrine Financial Group, I ask that you immediately hold a hearing to look at unanswered questions related to the role of the CFTC in allowing this situation to continue and investigate whether this agency had the proper procedures in place to prevent this type of abuse from happening again. It is absolutely essential that there is investor confidence in our commodity trading system.

 

It is also important that any hearing focus on whether there is a process in place to expedite the recovery of the assets of these investors.

 

Thanks again for your consideration of this request. We owe it to American taxpayers and investors to ensure a secure marketplace where they can trust that their money is protected from fraud.

 

Sincerely,

Bruce L. Braley

Member of Congress

 

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