UNESCO Strips Liverpool of World Heritage Status

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee voted Tuesday to strip Liverpool of its heritage status.

The reason? From the World Heritage Committee’s press release:

The World Heritage Committee, holding its 44th session in Fuzhou and online, decided to delete the property “Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City” (UK) from the World Heritage List, due to the irreversible loss of attributes conveying the outstanding universal value of the property.

Liverpool – Maritime Mercantile City was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2004 and on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2012 following concerns about the proposed development of Liverpool Waters. The project has since gone ahead along with other developments both inside the site and in its buffer zone. The Committee considers that these constructions are detrimental to the site’s authenticity and integrity.

Liverpool’s historic centre and docklands were inscribed for bearing witness to the development of one of the world’s major trading centres in the 18th and 19th centuries. The site also illustrated pioneering developments in modern dock technology, transport systems and port management.

Any deletion from the World Heritage List is a loss to the international community and to the internationally shared values and commitments under the World Heritage Convention.

After the Elbe Valley in Dresden (Germany) and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary (Oman), Liverpool is the third property to lose its World Heritage status.

Although not unanimous, a two-third’s majority of the committee voted in favour of the decision, according to the BBC, Liverpool stripped of Unesco World Heritage status:

Announcing the decision, committee chairman Tian Xuejun said 20 votes had been cast – with 13 in favour of deleting the city, five against the proposal and two ballot papers being invalid.

The decision should not have come as a complete surprise, as the BBC noted the city had been warned of the potential delisting for quite some time:

Unesco director Dr Mechtild Rossler said the city had been warned of its potential deletion from the list for many years.

Does that mean that UNESCO is taking on a new role, policing the sites to which it’s previously granted heritage status and dethroning those that no longer fit the bill?</

Not by a long shot.

I can’t help think there is more here than meets the eye, beyond the committee’s announced  nominal reason. But I have no idea what that might be. Readers?

First off, as the press release points out, this is only the third time UNESCO has stripped a site of heritage status.

Surely, whatever depredations have occurred, I’d warrant that they’re not nearly as serious as allowing six-story high cruise ships to enter the Venetian lagoon – or any of the other bad consequences that have flowed from the increase in mass tourism that often follows from heritage designation.  I’ve visited many UNESCO world heritage sights, and while designation is supposed to ensure their preservation and revival, in many cases, those benefits are overwhelmed by the arrival of tourist hordes. (I am aware that by visiting, I too am just another one of those tourists and contribute, however marginally, to the problem.)

Liverpool To Fight Back

The decision – if it stands – will almost certainly affect tourism in the city. Per the BBC:

Liverpool’s Liberal Democrat leader Richard Kemp said it was a “day of shame” for the city, adding that it would “without a doubt, affect our tourism and inward investment”.

The city will not quietly accept the demotion and seeks to defer the delisting designation, which is scheduled for a final decision at a meeting in July.

According to the Liverpool Echo, ‘Disappointment’ over UNESCO’s move to strip Liverpool of World Heritage status:

The city will now have just a few weeks to intensely lobby for a decision to defer this move, with the argument being made that it is unfair to do this at a time when Liverpool is still battling against the pandemic.

In an official statement, the government Department of Culture, Media and Sport, which deals with UNESCO on behalf of Liverpool and other listed UK sites, said: “We are disappointed in this recommendation and will continue to work with UNESCO, Historic England and Liverpool City Council to ensure the World Heritage Committee can make an informed decision when it meets next month.

“The UK is a world leader in cultural heritage protection and Liverpool’s World Heritage Status reflects the important role the city has played in our nation’s history.

“As a vibrant, working city, we recognise that there is always a balance to be found between protecting Liverpool’s heritage and its economic development.”

That department is overseen by Secretary of State Robert Jenrick and he took to Twitter to offer a similar view, stating: “Disappointing move by UNESCO. Liverpool demonstrably has world class heritage sites and UNESCO and should support imaginative urban regeneration, not fight against it.”

The key issues at play are the £5bn Liverpool Waters development in the historic north docks – and more recently the approved plans for Everton’s new stadium, which will involve the infilling of one of those docks.

This latter move was something Historic England, the government’s heritage heritage adviser, objected to in the planning process, before accepting that the move would go ahead.

But despite its reservations about this action, Historic England said Liverpool still very much deserves its World Heritage Status in response to UNESCO’s recommendation.

A spokesperson for Historic England said: “We are disappointed that UNESCO has recommended Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City World Heritage Site should be deleted from the List.

“We have been working closely with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Liverpool City Council and local organisations to address concerns raised by UNESCO over the past few years.

It’s been many years since I was last in Liverpool. But I remember marvelling then at some of its architecture (and this was at a time I lived in Oxford, where the architectural bar is set high). More recently, the last couple of seasons of Foyle’s War, in which Foyle is working as a senior MI-5 officer in what’s supposed to be London were filmed in Liverpool (see ITV Drama to be filmed in Liverpool.) Some of the featured buildings were simply amazing. The last of those episodes was broadcast in 2015 and at the time of shooting, at least some of the city’s architectural legacy was still intact.

In an Analysis sidebar to the BBC article, Claire Hamilton noted:

Today, there’s a sense of defiance in some quarters about Unesco’s decision that the city doesn’t need the title, especially if sits in the way of progress for an area which has lain neglected and semi derelict for decades.

Critics argue the benefits of being a World Heritage status were never properly spelled out and there wasn’t the political will in the city to address Unesco’s concerns until recently, when it was too late.

Many people argue that tourists visiting the Pier Head, St George’s Plateau or Penny Lane are not coming because Liverpool is a designated World Heritage site – they probably don’t even realise it is.

They’re coming for the Beatles, the football, food and the history but that history will remain.

Yet today’s announcement worries those who fear that the ability to protect heritage, architecture and history is now diminished, that there will be a free-for-all of unsuitable, careless development.

The argument for the last has been presented as a binary choice: heritage or progress? The feeling in Liverpool is, couldn’t we have had both?

Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram was quoted in the Liverpool Echo as picking up on that last theme:

But Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram said places like Liverpool should “not be not be faced with the binary choice between maintaining heritage status or regenerating left behind communities.”

He added: ““The Liverpool City Region is a place with a rich and storied history. We are proud of our history and do not shy away from it. But our heritage is also a vital part of our regeneration.

“It is therefore deeply disappointing that this recommendation to remove Liverpool’s World Heritage status has been made today, ahead of the meeting of the world heritage committee meeting next month.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    I can’t help but wonder if the fact that those buildings had World Heritage Listing caused it to be a more desirable address causing all those businesses and people to move there. But not being satisfied with that, they then had to turn around and gentrify this area to the point that they destroyed the reason that they moved there for. So, now that this area is set to lose its World Heritage Listing, will real estate prices for this area drop accordingly?

    1. The Rev Kev

      Buildings can be repurposed. First time I was in Switzerland I came across this house in one of the main streets of Basel. It had a date over the doorway for when it was built and it was some time in the late 1400s which brought me up short. There were offices inside now instead of it being a home but the outside was hardly touched except for a small brass plate indicating the business inside. The thought occurred to me at the time that here was a building that had been in continual occupation before the first colonies had even been established in North America by over a century.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Just take a little look at property values in any well preserved residential cultural quarter anywhere from Shanghai to London, San Francisco to Hanoi, Rome to Sydney, and you’ll see the answer for most people with money is ‘yes’.

  2. Biologist

    The old architecture on the waterfront has been somewhat eclipsed by new developments, including high-rises. Compare the first and the third photo in the above linked BBC article.

    Central docks are indeed a tourist hotspot now, with several (some excellent) museums including a great permanent exhibition about slavery.

    (Re-)development continues further north along the docks but has progressed less. I’ve cycled around those areas and some parts still offer a glimpse of what I suppose the whole central dock area used to be – falling apart, abandoned factories, basically a post-industrial wasteland interspersed with residential blocks. See here and here for examples of what I mean. There’s certainly a beauty to it but I imagine people would rather see it used for something rather than sitting abandoned.

    The following small news story shows another side side of Liverpool gentrification: A ‘dispersal zone’ in the ‘nice part’ of the docks and other parts of the centre has been put into place by the local police against ‘anti-social behaviour’, basically to keep out local kids skateboarding and swimming – I believe at the initiative of a local Labour councillor, citing Covid safety. But this conflict is much better illustrated by this Twitter back-and-forth between said councillor and a local trade unionist:


  3. PlutoniumKun

    As I posted in the links below, Liverpool is a fascinating city, the sheer variety of amazing industrial and commercial buildings from the 19th Century is a thing to behold. It seems like every business wanted to do something more amazing than their neighbours. Sadly, the city has also been in near terminal decline for maybe 2 generations. You can see this on a walkaround as the city centre has pretty much broken up into small islands of activity, surrounded by decay or sad bits of random urban generation. There is something particularly sad about the Anglican Cathedral, which was designed to be the centerpiece of a huge, bustling city, surrounded by 2 storey 1980’s housing and parking spaces.

    I have no idea if there is some politics behind this decision, but I doubt if its any more than sending a warning shot to other nominated places that they can’t just use the designation as a handy hook for tourism and then ignore what it really means. Much of the thinking behind the list was to encourage those countries which did little for their heritage to persuade them to see it as something of genuine value rather than just an annoyance and obstacle. Of course, this comes face to face with cultural differences in how ‘preservation’ is seen. In Japan and China, for example, its seen as perfectly acceptable to bulldoze old structures and rebuild replicas somewhere more accepable in the name of conservation. Its remarkable, for example, how many of those famous Japanese castles are made of surprisingly modern looking concrete.

    Liverpool also, sadly, has little real local power. Since the days of Thatcher its been regularly told what to do by various development corporations or regional civil service units, with wave after wave of often expensive, and invariably futile, regeneraton projects. Liverpool Council often had little real say in the horrible commercial projects that have scarred the seafront. Some of course are popular, including the huge regeneration associated with the move of Everton’s staduim to the seafront. This scheme is not just horrible, it represents almost everything terrible about PPP type development works, with the local government being put on the hook for debts to make a few private developers very rich. This wouldn’t matter if the development was any good, but judging from the models I’ve seen, its terrible.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Just to add to this – I’ve done a little reading since posting that, I’m very out of date on Liverpool matters. While PPP is certainly to blame it looks like the (Labour) led Council is the worst offender, they were actively promoting some pretty horrible developments and there are numerous claims of corruption.

  4. Eustachedesaintpierre

    I don’t always agree with Jonathon Meades but I think he was spot on in relation to the failure of the regeneration craze, started by the Guggenheim in Bilbao & the Liverpool garden festival, which he covers as episode 2 of his series Abroad Again titled On the Brandwagon . Stoke also had a garden festival which was very nice but nothing much remains. Basically nothing more than a gesture that could not in any way compensate for the then mass outsourcing of in particular the large pottery industry, which give the city it’s alternative name of The Potteries.

    Ironically the flower show was set-up in Etruria named by Josiah Wedgwood where his mansion was built close to his factory & the village that was built for the workers. On that site there was also a giant steelworks named Shelton Bar that lit up the sky all night for miles around & although it was good for the environment that it closed, nothing substantial & long lasting was left to replace it, or anything much else that was sent away by companies that at that time under Blair who all adopted the BS slogan ” Investing in People “.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’d forgotten all about the garden festivals. That was a real flavour of the month gimmick.

      There is a genuine issue when an urban area loses its raison d’etre, especially if its essentially a one business town. Do you throw vast amounts of money to give it some sort of lifeline, or do you just accept that some places will revert to nature, and focus your money on where it gets the best return? Urban regeneration is very tricky – there are numerous failures, but also plenty of seemingly dead cities that found a new lease of life, with or without external aid. I suspect that in the post Covid world we’ll see a lot of surprises, as so many businesses will be reassessing their geographic focus. We might get some surprises.

      1. Eustachedesaintpierre

        I’m sure that there will be surprises, whether or not the now nicknamed ” Superspreader of Confusion ” Boris stays around for much longer.

        A lot of it in the Pottery Industry was self inflicted & perhaps you remember the TV series “Troubleshooter ” that had the once chairman of ICI John Harvey Jones visiting companies in trouble with the intention of helping them get fixed. I watched just one featuring a company called Churchill China. His main message was that they should invest heavily in design, which they did & they are now like similar companies such as Portmerrion & Moorcroft who did likewise, still doing pretty well. The majority however took no notice & just outsourced with varying results, especially if people discovered that they were still paying a premium for in many cases inferior products.

        Not the whole story of course as for instance Royal Doulton always invested in design, but they managed to screw it up by employing around 15 marketing execs, who I recall all sitting around a large posh table, arguing, point scoring, & justifying their existences while the top man who used to sell ties ( Tie Rack ) decided what would be chosen not on an aesthetic standard, but instead on how well it could be fit into a marketing pitch….didn’t work out well.

        One slight silver lining was that I got out & moved to Ireland of which both North & south I prefer much more than England, for many reasons.

        Btw – got to see my daughter & wondered if you were one of the many cyclists I passed on that winding road to Blessington.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          I’m glad you got to Blessington – there is a big cycling club there so lots of roadies around at all times, but I haven’t been that way in a while, normally I cycle straight up to the Sally Gap from Dublin to avoid the main traffic (although last Sunday there was a big traffic jam on the military road, too many people going out for walks).

          The Potteries issue reminds me of the travails of Waterford Glass. They were once the poster child for how to turn a craft industry into a major commercial success. But they lost their way, mostly because they were obsessed with selling in the US market and failed to notice that the market had shifted to Asia. The brand name was sold off, I think they are made in the Czech republic now.

          The Potteries of course wasn’t just pottery – Ironbridge was pretty much ground zero for the industrial revolution, but I think they lacked good coal resources so it shifted elsewhere. The Ha’penny bridge in Dublin was made there, shipped out in sections. It was the longest wrought iron bridge in the world for about half a century.

          1. Basil Pesto

            Ha, my parents schlepped me to the Waterford factory in 2001. They bought me a pen there though which was nice.

            1. Eustachedesaintpierre

              Yes Ironbridge is an amazing place – so many trees likely only there due to the coal shortage which probably stopped it turning into the usual large scale industrial vandalism.

              Yes, US market & at the time I had dealings with Royal Doulton they were in partnership with the US company Franklin Mint who sold so called collector’s items mainly through magazine Ads. I remember that those Ads would state that there would be only one kiln run, but according to a guy I knew who had seen the kiln in Indonesia it was about 500 yards long with it’s own miniature railway.

              I have a story which involves Waterford Crystal & about 50 disgruntled elderly American tourists who offloaded from a coach into a Killarney bar I was having lunch in….maybe some other time.

  5. HotFlash

    I expect that the real estate developers are cheering. I don’t know how it is in Liverpool, but here in Toronto developers hate the “Historic” designation — too many restrictions. They will fight new ones tooth and nail and actively work to undermine existing ones. I know/knew the heads of many an historic site, they always got scared when the core-boring guys came through to check whether deep footings could be placed — it was just a matter of time. One city archeologist I knew was tasked with sampling a site for artifacts that would indicate something that should be excavated, burial ground or such, with the hope that none would be found. Another site, rumored to be an old graveyard, on a local university campus was being excavated by student archaeologists as a class project. The dig was shut down before the grid squares were fully laid and the spiffy Pharm building stands there now, named, of course, for the donor family.

    Fort York, for instance, once an island of green in an industrial area (the city parks dept tree nursery was on the land), is now an island of history in a sea of highly profitable development. Tree nursery gone, townhouses now. Where there used to be docks there are now condos, condos, condos, many named for what used to be there, so Candy Factory Lofts, Liberty Village (many war plants there, a conflux of rail and water transport), The Distillery District, etc.

    The method there was

    1.) historic site starved for $$ — check. Most cities don’t have the money to maintain, let alone restore, their landmarks.
    2.) Interest group formed Friends of (whatever), initially by history buffs and re-enactors and such, to raise funds to keep their beloved fort or tugboat* or inn or whatever functioning.
    3.) Group ‘reaches out’ for $$$. “Angel” donors answer the call, City thinks it can further cut funding, repeat for as many years as required. The ‘angels’ run for the board and generally take over.
    4.) The donors have become de-facto owners. Gosh, all that land, perhaps the City could sell off a bit of it? To save the Fort? And provide much needed housing? Repeat until the land’s all gone… with a cute historic landmark to name the development after.

    5.) Profit!

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Some businesses like historic buildings. The horrible Wetherspoons chain of pubs in England specialise in turning derelict listed buildings into giant pubs, and they generally do an excellent job architecturally. Its solely business – they realised that they could pick up buildings like old art deco cinemas or abandoned churches very cheap and turn them into popular venues. The chain is notorious for its poor pay and ruthless approach to customers, but they apparently do an excellent job on the buildings – by getting a reputation for quality restoration they get their planning permissions through much more quickly and efficiently than their competitors.

      I was once told by an architect friend of a major international hotel chain that tried to demolish several 19th Century banks for a new hotel, but after a long battle with conservationists and the city council they reluctantly agreed to preserve the facades and incorporate the main banking hall into the hotel building. Apparently, a year after opening the senior manager of the company sent a very nice letter to the Council thanking them for forcing them to incorporate the hall – they used it as the main dining room for the hotel and apparently they were surprised to find that it was a big hit with customers and tourists.

    2. Edgar, not Edmund

      One of our Covid binges was finally watching the British comedy, “The Detectorists”, after many recommendations over the years. It is a truly charming and eccentric series about the subculture of metal detector enthusiasts. But, in this instance, one of the main characters is a down-on-his-luck archeologist. He lands a job working as a consultant for a local developer, and is very excited when he uncovers a Roman mural on the site. Of course, it is “disappeared” before he has a chance to report it and muck up the works.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        When I worked in the UK there was a very well known archaeological consultancy who’s specialty was in not finding things under development sites. They were very popular with developers.

        The other side though with detectorists is hiding things from them. When the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was being surveyed in the late 1990’s they found a Saxon burial ground along the route. The discovery had to be kept very quiet as the area would have been over run with treasure hunters. They put up hoardings for the survey but made it look like it was pre-construction works so that word wouldn’t leak out.

  6. chuck roast

    When Liverpool was “the” destination of ship captains from around the world, it was also the home of scores of wonderful ship painters. These paintings were prized by owners and captains who took great pride in their undertakings. The paintings also acted as quasi-insurance documentation for when a ship went lost. Here is a ship portrait by Liverpool painter W. K. McMinn who liked to depict his ships with the Liverpool docks in the background. The buyers were sticklers for accuracy. They wanted every spar, block and shroud in the right place. Here we see L. to R. the Dome of St. Pauls, the Tower Building, the spire of St. Georges and the Custom House. The Pickwick in Two Positions Off Liverpool.

  7. Sara K.

    Not all World Heritage Sites get flooded with tourists. For example, years ago, I visited Iwami Ginzan in Japan. Despite being a World Heritage Site, it only has the most basic infrastructure for tourists (a train line which primarily serves locals but can also carry tourists, some inns for tourists but not a ton of them, interpretive signs in English). Most Japanese people I’ve talked to have never been to Iwami Ginzan, and of the many non-Japanese people I’ve talked to who’ve travelled in Japan, the only ones who have also been to Iwami Ginzan were the tourists who I met at the inn where I stayed (who I could count on one hand). It’s a far cry from the massive numbers of tourists in Kyoto. That said, World Heritage Status probably made the difference between Iwami Ginzan having a little tourism and zero tourism. I myself probably would not have known about it otherwise.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The Japanese are notoriously bad at managing their own tourist and heritage attractions (the book ‘Dogs and Demons‘ by Alex Kerr gives plenty of examples. He attributes it to the general view that tourism and hospitality is a business for second raters. It doesn’t surprise me that having obtained the designation, they then proved incapable of using it to their advantage. Of course, it could be that there is just insufficient infrastructure in the area, so they like to keep it low key. But I’m inclined to favour incompetence. Some of the stuff done in Kyoto is appalling (most tourists have no idea just how beautiful it was before Kyoto City Council decided to ‘improve’ things by basically demolishing many of the finest parts of the city). Even the geisha quarter was done out in the sort of concrete paving normally reserved for the pedestrian streets of suburban English towns. Some of the most beautiful parts of Japan were utterly thrashed during the boom years, often with beautiful old onsen towns ripped apart and replaced with hideous modern hotels.

      There are amazing things to be seen in Japan, but I’ve found that by far the best way to find them is to examine closely all the advice in tourism information (both English and Japanese language), and go in the opposite direction. Or find a good blog like Spike Japan.

    2. Basil Pesto

      UNESCO has a great app called World Heritage that has a map of all the sites. There are a lot of them, of varying size and prominence. There’s one literally down the road from me, and I didn’t even know it was a site until I saw it on the app. It’s not the kind of place that tourists were beating down a path to Melbourne to visit in the before times (compared to, say, the Sydney Opera House, which is also listed nyt). In fact I doubt most of them knew it was a site either.

  8. PlutoniumKun

    Incidentally, this may be a shot over the bows for another British city, Edinburgh. Edinburgh is far wealthier than Liverpool, but it is also seemingly addicted to awful corporate architecture. They’ve even blotted the very beautiful skyline with a turd emoji.

  9. Maritimer

    “I can’t help think there is more here than meets the eye, beyond the committee’s announced nominal reason. But I have no idea what that might be. Readers?”
    Skeptic here. Heritage is an Industry.

    I live near a town which was declared a World Heritage Site. From once a working town with local people working and living normal lives, it has become gentrified, prettified, monetized. Even a Mayor of this town decried all the houses being turned into BBs and housing becoming too expensive for the remaining locals. Lots of restaurants with food the locals cannot afford, though they can cook and serve it. This town was featured on the Today Show which made it even worse.

    For starters, these UNESCO folks who are Climate Changers for sure, should at least be aware that encouraging Global Tourism doesn’t help climate change remediation. They also do not seem to care a whit about destroying local culture and communities.

    Here’s one story I quickly found regarding corruption at UNESCO:

    Here’s another story I quickly found about monetizing heritage in Ghana:

    If investigative reporters were not too busy, I suspect there would be a juicy, rotten story regarding the Heritage business and UNESCO’s role in it. I can just hear the backroom horsetrading for a valuable World Heritage designation. Kaching……….

    1. Basil Pesto

      it’s reductive to the point of being boring to conclude that the point of UNESCO and word heritage listings is exclusively gentrification and tourism (as opposed to, inter alia, conservation and education).

      Your first link is about cronyism in the leadership from 20 years ago. A real problem in the UN to be sure but it doesn’t really speak to the point of UNESCO or the work the rank and file do.

      Your second link about Ghana doesn’t mention UNESCO. I don’t know enough about Ghana to say whether the scheme it mentions has any bona fide value for the people there, although yes, the content of the article does ring some neoliberal alarm bells.

      I suspect it’s one of those organisations like the WHO, where the leadership leaves much to be desired but which has many good scientists, archaeologists etc. working for it.

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, the majority of the designations are the result of intensive local lobbying. Whatever you think about mass tourism, the majority of these designations either bring tourism to areas that need it, or put a pubilc focus on those local governments that aren’t managing tourism well (such as Venice).

        There is a huge amount of subjectivity in choosing sites like these, but the Unesco committee seem to do as good a job as can be expected in such a contentious area. As you say, Unesco is like most UN agencies – horrible senior management, but plenty of competent and dedicated people at middle to lower levels.

        Having said that, the designation rarely has much statutary force in most countries. When a furore erupted over the potential damage caused by shooting some of the Star Wars sequences on the Skellig Islands in Ireland, there was little mention of their Unesco status – it was the EU habitat designation (for migratory birds) that had real force in legal terms.

  10. PhilJ

    There‘s a police investigation into corruption in the local gov’t, mayor and planning office that may explain some of the shoddy buildings.

    Operation Aloft is Merseyside Police’s investigation into building and development contracts in Liverpool. Arrests were first made in December 2019 and included that of the now-dismissed Liverpool Council Director of Regeneration, Nick Kavanagh, on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and misconduct in a public office. Twelve months later, then Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson was arrested on suspicion of bribery and witness intimidation. Both men deny wrongdoing and the investigation remains ongoing.


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