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Amid allegations of fund misuse, Reiner leaves California commission

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Hollywood director Rob Reiner stepped down temporarily as chairman of a state early education commission amid allegations of possible misuse of taxpayer funds for a June ballot initiative he is spearheading.

In a letter Friday to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reiner said his leave from the First 5 California Children and Families Commission will end June 7, the day after voters cast ballots on Proposition 82. That bill would establish a state constitutional right to preschool for 4-year-olds.

Reiner helped create the Children and Families commission, a state agency that uses tobacco taxes for early childhood development programs.

State law prohibits the use of public funds for campaign activities. But a Los Angeles Times story recently detailed how the Children and Families commission spent $23-million in state funds on ads that promoted the benefits of preschool.

The television ads aired this winter, coinciding with a signature-collecting campaign for Reiner's "Preschool for All" initiative, Proposition 82. The commission stopped airing the ads when the initiative got state approval to be on the June ballot.

The commission also earlier paid for a political consultant who now is the campaign manager of Proposition 82, the paper reported.

Heater causes fire at Iraqi Embassy in Washington

WASHINGTON - A small fire briefly sent smoke billowing out of the Iraqi Embassy on Saturday before firefighters extinguished the second-floor blaze.

Fire investigators determined faulty wiring to a space heater caused the fire, District of Columbia Fire Department spokesman Alan Etter said.

"The space heater was running, but the wiring failed, shorted and caught the material on fire," Etter said.

Firefighters were careful to follow all procedures to ensure there was nothing suspicious because they were dealing with the Iraqi Embassy, said Deputy Fire Chief Thomas Herlihy.

The fire was contained to a rear room of the three-story, brick chancery, located off Washington's Dupont Circle. Damage was estimated at $15,000, Etter said.

Herlihy said firefighters took about five minutes to put out the fire. There were no injuries.

NASA spacecraft nears Mars, but hurdles remain

LOS ANGELES - A NASA spacecraft bound for Mars is nearing the end of its seven-month journey but faces a white-knuckle arrival at a planet known for swallowing scientific probes, mission managers said.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is on course to enter orbit around the Red Planet on March 10. If successful, it will spend the next two years photographing the surface and scouting for future landing sites.

The spacecraft is performing so well that engineers have canceled two final maneuvers to adjust its course in the last leg of the trip, said James Graf, project manager from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

"We're right on the money right now, heading toward our encounter with Mars," Graf said.

The greatest challenge of the $720-million mission is yet to come. Within the last 15 years, NASA has lost two spacecraft during the tricky orbit-insertion phase around Mars.

EPA will allow chemical weapon wastewater plan

DOVER, Del. - Citing new safety assurances, the Environmental Protection Agency has dropped objections to a plan to treat chemical weapon wastewater at a DuPont Co. plant and discharge it into the Delaware River.

DuPont has been seeking an Army contract to treat 2-million to 4-million gallons of chemicals left over from a disposal operation in Newport, Ind.

Delaware and New Jersey opposed an earlier version of the plan. Officials feared that VX nerve agent and other pollutants would reach the river even after treatment at a plant in New Jersey, across the river from Wilmington.

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