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Five journalists receive IRE fellowships

IRE recently awarded five fellowships to its upcoming Data Journalism Bootcamp thanks to the generosity of financial supporters. Recipients will attend the bootcamp taking place in August. 

Shalina Chatlani from WWNO Radio (New Orleans, Louisiana), María Angélica Castro Camacho from DW Akademie and Hochschule Bonn-Rhein-Sieg (Germany) and Christina Saint Louis from the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minnesota) received the Ottaway Fellowship. 

Established by David Ottaway and the Ottaway Family Fund, the Ottoway Fellowship is aimed at increasing the diversity of IRE’s membership. 

Ali Oshinskie from WNPR (New Haven, Connecticut) received the Holly Whisenhunt Stephen Fellowship. 

Established by WTHR-Indianapolis to honor Holly Whisenhunt Stephen, an award-winning journalist and longtime IRE member, who died November 2008 after a long battle with cancer.

Victoria Bouloubasis from Enlace Latino NC / Southerly (Durham, North Carolina) received the R-CAR Fellowship. 

Established by IRE member Daniel Gilbert, the fellowship is intended to provide rural reporters with training they might not otherwise receive. The fellowship is offered in conjunction with the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. 

If you are interested in applying for a fellowship for financial assistance for future IRE boot camps, sign up to receive IRE’s newsletter about fellowship opportunities

By: Brant Houston

Jim Polk, a longtime IRE leader and member, died on July 15th in his home in Atlanta. Polk, 83, had a distinguished career as an investigative journalist in both print and broadcast, winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1974 for his coverage of Watergate.

He began his career at newspapers in his home state of Indiana and went on to do award-winning work for the Associated Press, The Washington Star, NBC News and CNN. Polk graduated from Indiana University, and in 1994 he was inducted into the Indiana Journalism Hall of Fame.

Polk served as an IRE board president in the organization's formative years and was a frequent speaker at IRE conferences. He was passionate about the profession and about IRE and remained an active IRE member, serving as a contest judge and often weighing in on governance issues. In 2018, he received an IRE Founders Award for his service.

In a 2015 issue of The IRE Journal, Polk wrote a "collected wisdom" column on the practice of investigative journalism, stating: "...that is the core of what we do in journalism. It was true then, and it’s true now. It hasn’t changed. It’s the same formula: 1. Ask questions. 2. Find answers. 3. Tell the public. Yes, our delivery systems for telling the news have evolved. But our methods in pursuit of truth are simple and eternal."

There will be a private burial in Polk's hometown of Oaktown, Indiana. Condolences may be left at the funeral home website at https://www.fredrickandson.com/obituary/James-Polk .  In lieu of flowers, the family asks that memorial contributions be made to Indiana University, at https://www.myiu.org/.

Three incumbents and three newcomers were elected to two-year terms for the IRE Board of Directors in election results announced Saturday. IRE members also elected two members of the Contest Committee, which judges the IRE Awards.

Here are vote totals for the six candidates elected to the Board of Directors:

Here are results for the remaining candidates:

For a one-year term on the IRE Contest Committee, Shannon Isbell and Angeliki Kastanis secured seats. Here are voting results:

Online voting began the week of May 17 and ended Saturday. The six journalists elected Saturday to the IRE Board of Directors joined seven incumbents, whose terms expire next year.

The newly constituted board met Tuesday to elect officers to serve for one year on the Executive Committee. Those officers are: 

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors 2021 Golden Padlock Award honoring the most secretive public agency or official in the U.S. 

Drawn from nominations from journalists across the country, Landry won for suing newspaper reporter Andrea Gallo over a public records request. Gallo, an investigative reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, filed a request in December for copies of sexual harassment complaints made against the head of the attorney general’s criminal division. The agency said it would not release the complaint because it contained private information. Landry then took the extraordinary step of suing Gallo, asking the judge to seal the record and prohibit Gallo from disclosing any information pertaining to the complaint. In response, Gallo’s attorney called it “simply unfathomable” that Landry would sue before even attempting to redact portions of the sexual harassment complaint, as the newspaper had suggested. A judge rejected Landry’s argument in March and ordered the release of the record.

“In a fiercely competitive field of finalists this year, Landry impressed the judges with a bold strategy designed to ensure important truths remain hidden from the public,” said Golden Padlock committee chair Robert Cribb. “Suing reporters for posing questions is a high watermark for public officials committed to secret-keeping and a worthy winning strategy for this honor.”  

IRE named three finalists for the award for their extraordinary efforts to undermine the public’s right to know. 

The finalists for the 2021 Golden Padlock Award were:

  1. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, for consistently refusing to release his official communications to reporters in accordance with state law. A string of denied requests from Paxton’s office over the past several months has inspired a unique media coalition across the state. Eight media outlets — including the Dallas Morning News, ProPublica, the Austin American-Statesman, Associated Press and The Texas Tribune — are now working together to “pry open the vice grip Paxton holds over his personal texts, emails and memos,” the group nomination reads. As part of a story the outlets published jointly, a Dallas Morning News reporter texted a work-related question to Paxton’s cellphone and later requested all text messages about state business sent to that number on that day. Paxton’s agency said there were no messages. When asked why the reporter’s text wasn’t turned over, a spokesman suggested the office did not need to keep it because the agency does not consider “unsolicited and unwanted” text messages to be subject to its record retention policies. 
  2. The Indian Health Service, for using a little-known federal statute to block the release of an independent review into the decades-long cover-up of a pedophile doctor who preyed on young boys on Native American reservations. The leaders of the Indian Health Service commissioned the report after a 2019 expose by The Wall Street Journal and the PBS series Frontline, and promised lawmakers that it would detail where “the breakdowns occurred and who should be held accountable.” The resulting report did detail bureaucratic failures and criminal acts. But the Indian Health Service blocked its release by arguing it was a “confidential medical quality assurance review” that should be kept secret. The Journal and The New York Times filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the report and sued in federal court after IHS didn't respond. In January, a judge ordered the report’s release and said “literally nothing in the report could be characterized” as a medical quality review. The report remains secret as the IHS appeals that decision. The federal judge has highlighted the important reporting by WSJ and Frontline that has “taken the agency to task for its failures.” 
  3. The Trustees of Algonquin Township in McHenry County, Illinois, for aggressive attempts to fight the release of information related to alleged corruption reported by the Edgar County Watchdogs. In 2018, the Watchdogs began reporting on alleged nepotism and misuse of funds among the employees. Their reporting included accounts of some Edgar County employees gambling with money from the county’s 911 account. At one point, the reporters received a security video of township employees going through records while discussing which documents should be discarded. The Watchdogs posted the video on YouTube. The township responded by asking YouTube to take down the video and by repeatedly subpoenaing the entire contents of the Watchdogs’ Dropbox account.

IRE's Don Bolles Medal for 2021 has been awarded to four investigative journalists who have courageously worked to expose human rights abuses in China, as well as that country's handling of the coronavirus crisis, and faced retaliation from the government of China for their reporting.

This year's recipients are Chao Deng, Josh Chin and Philip Wen of The Wall Street Journal and Chris Buckley of The New York Times

The Don Bolles Medal recognizes investigative journalists who have exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up against intimidation or efforts to suppress the truth about matters of public importance. 

"China makes it incredibly difficult for journalists to uncover truths that the government would rather keep hidden from the rest of the world," said IRE Board President Cheryl W. Thompson. "These journalists have all shown extraordinary courage in digging up those important stories, and as a result, they faced the wrath of the Chinese government." 

Deng, Chin and Wen were expelled from China in February 2020 in the first mass expulsion of journalists in the post-Mao era. While the government of China claimed that it was retaliating for the headline of an opinion column (knowing that the Journal's news and editorial operations are completely separate), the expulsions enabled Chinese officials to suppress critical reporting about the government's failures. 

Deng was reporting from Wuhan about the ongoing coronavirus crisis when the Foreign Ministry ordered her to cease all journalistic activity and to prepare for expulsion from the country. Her reporting had revealed questions about the accuracy of the government's COVID tests and about how the outbreak had overwhelmed the city's health care system. Previously, Deng exposed how Western companies had become "entangled in China's campaign to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population." 

Wen's reporting raised questions about the potential involvement of Chinese President Xi Jinping's cousin in organized crime, money laundering and influence-peddling schemes. He also revealed how China had shifted its strategy for dealing with ethnic Muslims from forced re-education centers to more subtle forms of control. 

Chin had reported on how China, in an effort to snuff out a Muslim separatist group, had turned the autonomous region of Xinjiang "into a laboratory for high-tech social controls." He revealed how the government, after rounding up Muslim Uighur residents, had demolished neighborhoods in an attempt to purge their culture. Chin also reported on how employees of Huawei Technologies had helped African governments to spy on their political opponents. 

"Chao, Phil and Josh are the kind of foreign correspondents that are increasingly unwelcome in China -- reporters who are native-level fluent in Mandarin, who have spent years in the country and who dare to report on sensitive subjects that otherwise will not be told to the outside world," said the Journal's China bureau chief, Jonathan Cheng. 

In July 2020, in a signal of the Chinese government's determination to extend its repressive reach, New York Times reporter Chris Buckley was forced to leave Hong Kong after authorities refused to renew his visa. 

Two months earlier, Buckley had been reporting from Wuhan when his press card expired, and he was forced to pack his bags and leave mainland China. In the early days of the outbreak, Buckley had described conditions "with the sick being herded into makeshift quarantine camps, with minimal medical care, a growing sense of abandonment and fear."  

His reporting had previously revealed how China was detaining Muslims in vast numbers, "where they are forced to listen to lectures, sing hymns praising the Chinese Communist Party and write 'self-criticism' essays." He was part of the duo that published the leaked Xinjiang Papers, more than 400 pages of internal Chinese documents that exposed details of the Chinese government's mass detention of Muslims. 

Former IRE Board member Phil Williams, who has spearheaded the nomination process for the Don Bolles Medal, said the four journalists exemplify the increasing difficulty that investigative journalists face throughout China. 

"In honoring these four courageous journalists, we also recognize the work of countless other journalists who struggle every day to shine light into the dark corners of China," Williams said. "As China plays an increasingly important role on the world stage, the Don Bolles Medal should be seen as a call for more transparency and for the freedom to report throughout the country." 

The Don Bolles Medal was created in 2017 in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the Arizona Project, an effort led by IRE to finish the work of Don Bolles. The Arizona Republic investigative reporter was killed in 1976 by a car bomb in retaliation for his reporting. 

Bolles’ death came a few days before the first national IRE conference in Indianapolis, where the veteran reporter had been scheduled to speak on a panel. At the time, Bolles had been investigating allegations of land fraud involving prominent politicians and individuals with ties to organized crime. 

After his murder, nearly 40 journalists from across the country descended on Arizona to complete his investigation. News organizations across the country published their findings. 

Their message: Efforts to suppress the truth will be met by even greater efforts from the rest of the journalism community to tell it. 

Investigative Reporters and Editors has named a competitive field of finalists for its 2021 Golden Padlock Award honoring the most secretive public agency or official in the U.S. 

Drawn from nominations from journalists across the country, four finalists were chosen for their extraordinary commitment to secrecy, ranging from suing a reporter over a request for public information, denying public access to a report detailing institutional failures that allowed ongoing abuse of children, filing subpoenas to access reporters’ research and deleting personal communications sought through official journalistic requests in the public interest. 

“It’s an inspiration to highlight the work of public officials that embody the highest principles of bureaucratic intransigence, self-interest and disregard for the public’s right to know,” said Robert Cribb, chair of IRE’s Golden Padlock Committee. “These are civil servants of deep conviction whose personal pledge to uphold obfuscation make them worthy of public acknowledgement.”

The winner will be announced during the awards ceremony at the IRE21 virtual conference on Wednesday, June 16. If you are registered for the conference, you can add it to your agenda here.

The finalists for the 2021 Golden Padlock Award are:

  1. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, for consistently refusing to release his official communications to reporters in accordance with state law. A string of denied requests from Paxton’s office over the past several months has inspired a unique media coalition across the state. Eight media outlets — including the Dallas Morning News, ProPublica, the Austin American-Statesman, Associated Press and The Texas Tribune — are now working together to “pry open the vice grip Paxton holds over his personal texts, emails and memos,” the group nomination reads. As part of a story the outlets published jointly, a Dallas Morning News reporter texted a work-related question to Paxton’s cellphone and later requested all text messages about state business sent to that number on that day. Paxton’s agency said there were no messages. When asked why the reporter’s text wasn’t turned over, a spokesman suggested the office did not need to keep it because the agency does not consider “unsolicited and unwanted” text messages to be subject to its record retention policies. 
  2. The Indian Health Service, for using a little-known federal statute to block the release of an independent review into the decades-long cover-up of a pedophile doctor who preyed on young boys on Native American reservations. The leaders of the Indian Health Service commissioned the report after a 2019 expose by The Wall Street Journal and the PBS series Frontline, and promised lawmakers that it would detail where “the breakdowns occurred and who should be held accountable.” The resulting report did detail bureaucratic failures and criminal acts. But the Indian Health Service blocked its release by arguing it was a “confidential medical quality assurance review” that should be kept secret. The Journal and The New York Times filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the report and sued in federal court after IHS didn't respond. In January, a judge ordered the report’s release and said “literally nothing in the report could be characterized” as a medical quality review. The report remains secret as the IHS appeals that decision. The federal judge has highlighted the important reporting by WSJ and Frontline that has “taken the agency to task for its failures.” 
  3. The Trustees of Algonquin Township in McHenry County, Illinois, for aggressive attempts to fight the release of information related to alleged corruption reported by the Edgar County Watchdogs. In 2018, the Watchdogs began reporting on alleged nepotism and misuse of funds among the employees. Their reporting included accounts of some Edgar County employees gambling with money from the county’s 911 account. At one point, the reporters received a security video of township employees going through records while discussing which documents should be discarded. The Watchdogs posted the video on YouTube. The township responded by asking YouTube to take down the video and by repeatedly subpoenaing the entire contents of the Watchdogs’ Dropbox account.
  4. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, for suing newspaper reporter Andrea Gallo over a public records request. Gallo, an investigative reporter for The Advocate and The Times-Picayune, filed a request in December for copies of sexual harassment complaints made against the head of the attorney general’s criminal division. The agency said it would not release the complaint because it contained private information. Landry then took the extraordinary step of suing Gallo, asking the judge to seal the record and prohibit Gallo from disclosing any information pertaining to the complaint. In response, Gallo’s attorney called it “simply unfathomable” that Landry would sue before even attempting to redact portions of the sexual harassment complaint, as the newspaper had suggested. A judge rejected Landry’s argument in March and ordered the release of the record.

IRE is partnering with the Media Mentors program at JournalismMentors.com to provide mentorship and guidance to journalists looking to build skills in data and watchdog reporting. 

Media Mentors is a mentoring program from journalism-internships.com, a website dedicated to fostering the next generation of media leaders. Mentors listed on the website have volunteered to offer half-hour, one-on-one sessions for advice, guidance or general questions about navigating the media industry. The website is run by Adriana Lacy, who works at Axios, and Caitlin Ostroff, who works at The Wall Street Journal.

Mentors on the Investigative page of the JournalismMentors.com website will be IRE members who have volunteered to help others with skills such as data journalism, requesting public records, approaching an accountability interview and other watchdog reporting skills. Those seeking mentorship are not required to be IRE members, and mentorship sessions are free to all.

“The ease of navigating the journalism industry and getting into investigative reporting shouldn’t be determined by where someone lives or where that person studied,” said Caitlin Ostroff, a co-founder of Media Mentors. “Adriana and I benefited immensely from the advice of veteran journalists as we started our careers and are thrilled to work with IRE to reach more mentees and mentors.”

IRE encourages members who have previously mentored others to volunteer through JournalismMentors.com.

Previously, mentorship was available only at IRE’s two annual conferences. This program makes mentorship more widely available throughout the year and to those who cannot travel to conferences.

"We’re thrilled to offer a more robust investigative mentoring program for IRE members and the broader journalism community," said Kat Stafford, an IRE board member and Membership Services Committee chair. "Mentorship is at the heart of IRE's mission, and we’re grateful this new partnership will help us build the next generation of diverse investigative journalists and representative newsrooms.”

Through the website, mentors set up office hours when they are available, and mentees can choose a time to set up a chat through an automated system. In addition to the IRE partnership, Media Mentors also offers mentorship in other topics such as editing, marketing, design/photo and audience engagement. See the frequently asked questions page on JournalismMentors.com for more information.

The IRE Board is thrilled to announce that Diana R. Fuentes will serve as the next executive director of the 6,000-member organization. She is the first person of color to serve in that role.

Fuentes, a Texas native, has served as the Deputy Metro Editor of the San Antonio Express-News since 2015. She has extensive senior management and masthead-level experience running newsrooms throughout Texas, and has served on numerous boards, including the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now the News Leaders Association). She is past president, treasurer and secretary of the Texas APME and the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. She is a lifetime member, and former secretary and financial officer of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

“Diana’s management skills—and her management style—combined with her three decades as a journalist and her deep appreciation and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, make her a good fit for IRE,” said IRE Board President Cheryl W. Thompson. “I have no doubt that she will do an amazing job.”

Fuentes brings a solid vision to IRE, which includes initiatives to support investigative journalists at smaller newspapers, broadcast outlets and online news sites. She also hopes to expand the organization’s program that provides investigative training at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Hispanic-serving institutions; and build on the partnerships with culturally diverse journalism organizations. And she’d like to launch a high-school program that would strengthen the pipeline for future investigative journalists.

“These are challenging times, but also a time of opportunity,” Fuentes said. “IRE is the acknowledged leader in training journalists to produce high-quality content, putting us in a prime position to expand the pool of diverse candidates and help newsrooms large and small reflect the communities they serve.”

Fuentes was chosen after a six-person search committee screened dozens of candidates. She impressed them with her practical experience in every critical element the committee cited as being important for the position. The board and staff also found her to be no-nonsense but affable.

“I’m enthusiastic about working with a passionate, open-minded board and a hard-working staff, dedicated members and visionary supporters who fund our work,” Fuentes said. “There’s much to be done, and we are going to do it together."

Former IRE board member Ziva Branstetter and IRE Vice President Mark J. Rochester co-chaired the committee. They were joined by Austin American-Statesman Editor Manny Garcia; University of Missouri Associate Professor Mark Horvit; Cindy Galli, director of investigative projects for ABC News and a current IRE board member; and Thompson, senior editor of station investigations for NPR.

Fuentes succeeds Doug Haddix, who left in January after nearly five years in the position. Fuentes will start the position on April 26.

Do you know an investigative journalist who has exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up against intimidation or efforts to suppress the truth about matters of public importance?

Perhaps someone who has faced extreme threats for his/her investigative reporting? Someone who has been targeted by authorities for harassment for doing his/her job? Someone who has faced other kinds of intimidation?

Please take a moment to nominate that person for this year’s Don Bolles Medal by April 19. 

The IRE Board created the honor in 2017 as a way to draw public attention to the difficult circumstances under which some of our colleagues are forced to operate.

In 2017, the first Don Bolles Medal was bestowed posthumously to Mexican journalist Miroslava Breach Velducea, who was assassinated in retaliation for her efforts to expose organized crime and corruption.

Last year, it was awarded to four journalists: Chris Ingalls, Jeremy Jojola, A.C. Thompson and Leonard Pitts Jr., who were targeted by extremist groups in retaliation for their reporting.

The medal was created in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the Arizona Project, an effort led by IRE to finish the work of Don Bolles, an Arizona Republic investigative reporter who was killed in 1976 by a car bomb.

Bolles’ death came a few days before the first national IRE conference in Indianapolis, where the veteran reporter had been scheduled to speak on a panel. At the time, Bolles had been investigating allegations of land fraud involving prominent politicians and individuals with ties to organized crime.

After his murder, nearly 40 journalists from across the country descended on Arizona to complete his investigation. News organizations across the country published their findings. Their message: Even if you kill a reporter, you can’t kill the story.

The 2021 IRE Conference will again be a virtual event, bringing together members for five days of training, conversations and networking online June 14-18.

The #IRE21 conference had been scheduled for mid-June in Indianapolis. 

“We decided to move this year’s conference online again because the safety of our members matters most,” said Cheryl W. Thompson, IRE’s board president. “We will miss seeing everyone in person.”

Most sessions will take place from noon to 4 p.m. Eastern U.S. Time, to allow for participation across the United States and around the world. Training sessions will be recorded and available for attendees on demand for up to one year on the conference platform. The event will also include fun social events, such as happy hours, networking and a celebration of the 2020 IRE Award winners. 

IRE is seeking ideas for conference sessions through March 22. Please fill out this form to suggest ideas for speakers, topics, and fun social sessions.

Nearly 3,000 journalists, educators and students attended the first-ever virtual IRE Conference in September 2020, taking part in more than 200 sessions. Members joined from more than 30 countries.

“The IRE20 Conference was such an energizing event during a very trying year for journalists,” said Denise Malan, IRE interim executive director. “We’re excited to bring our community together online again this year, and we can’t wait to see everyone in person and celebrate together when it’s safe to do so.”

The online format also allowed IRE to lower the cost of registration. Registration rates are about half of the usual in-person rates for IRE conferences, and IRE will be offering about 200 fellowships that include free registration and membership.

“IRE board and staff members recognize that journalists have limited resources now more than ever,” Malan said. “We want to help ensure our training remains accessible through lower costs and more fellowship opportunities.” 

What will registration cost for the virtual IRE21 conference?

Registration rates are:

Attendees must be members of current members of IRE through June ($70/professional, $25/students). 

When will registration open?

We expect to open registration in mid-April. 

Will you have fellowships available?

Yes! We will offer about 200 fellowships, a record number for an IRE conference. Fellowships cover the cost of registration and a one-year IRE membership. Sign up to receive fellowship notices or watch IRE’s social media channels for application information. 

How do I give input on conference sessions?

We want to hear all of your ideas for the conference, including speakers you’d like to learn from, topics you want to delve into, and any fun ideas for social and networking in the virtual space. We’d also like to hear your ideas on the virtual format, and things that you liked (or didn’t like) from our last online conference to help us build an even better event.

Please fill out this form with your input by March 22. No idea is too big or too small! 

I’ve never been to a virtual conference. How will it work?

You’ll receive a secure link that will allow you (and only you!) to sign into the online conference. Once inside the virtual conference, you may browse the schedule, build your own personalized schedule, request one-on-one meetings with other attendees and much more. We will offer several options during any given time slot. The majority of sessions will feature video presentations with several speakers — typically using slides and tipsheets, similar to in-person events. You’ll be able to ask questions and interact with panelists in real time. We’ll also feature interactive social gatherings online.

Will I need special equipment or software to participate?

No. All you’ll need is Internet access and a computer, laptop or tablet — much as you need to participate in an online video meeting. To attend a virtual meeting on the Pathable platform, we strongly recommend using Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge browsers and downloading the Zoom app. 

What if I’m working, attending class or dealing with other obligations that cause me to miss some sessions?

That’s the beauty of a virtual conference. Most sessions will be recorded and available to attendees for up to one year. You can view them at your convenience. Most sessions will include video plus any related tipsheets, slide decks and chat transcripts.

Will #IRE21 be useful to international journalists?

Absolutely. We encourage international journalists, educators and students to join us online for #IRE21. An affordable registration rate — plus no need to spend money on travel, lodging and meals — opens up opportunities for far more journalists around the world to join IRE for learning, inspiration and collaboration. We’ll also provide ways for international journalists to connect with one another during the conference and have some fellowships for international journalists.

Will there be swag?

Yes, T-shirts, mugs, stickers and other items will be available for purchase in the IRE Store and will be shipped to you.    

How can I become a sponsor of the virtual #IRE21 conference?

The virtual platform offers many exciting opportunities for sponsors, including virtual trade show booths. If you’d like information on the benefits of sponsoring #IRE21, please contact Chris Vachon, IRE director of partnerships, by email: chris@ire.org.

How can I keep up with new developments connected to #IRE21?

Please sign up here to receive e-mail updates about #IRE21. It’s the best way to stay up-to-date on the latest virtual conference news. 

What if I have other questions?

Please contact info@ire.org.

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