9-11 victims comp fund accepting claims

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) — The Sept. 11th Victims Compensation Fund has begun accepting claims applications on its Web site, the U.S. Justice Department said Monday.

Special Master Sheila Birnbaum said claimants who have registered for the fund can complete an online eligibility form that will be used to determine whether they are eligible for compensation through the fund.

The fund was created by Congress shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States to compensate the victims of the attack or their families in exchange for their agreement not to sue the airline corporations involved.

The Web site is www.vcf.gov.

Claimants determined to be eligible will be asked to complete the compensation form, which will be used to determine the amount of compensation they are owed, the Justice Department said in a release.

Birnbaum said seminars and resources will be scheduled soon to assist claimants and their families with the process.

Claimants who suffer from a covered condition have until Oct. 3, 2013, to file a claim, she said. Others will have two years from the date on which they know or should have known of the condition for which they seek compensation until the fund stops accepting claims in 2016.

Author: Black-white racism still strong

CHICAGO, Oct. 31 (UPI) — U.S. blacks and whites see the same problems through completely different, race-inflected lenses, a University of Chicago political scientist writes.

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, slightly more than half of U.S. blacks said they believed they would soon enjoy equality, University of Chicago Professor Michael Dawson writes in the just-published “Not in Our Lifetimes: The Future of Black Politics.”

This compares with barely 20 percent of blacks in 2005 who said “racial equality for blacks would be achieved either in their lifetimes or at all in the United States,” Dawson says.

His 2005 surveys were conducted shortly after the Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina disaster, when blacks were 64 percent more likely than whites to think Washington would have moved faster if the victims of the hurricane were white.

At the time, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin blamed racism and government bureaucracy for hamstringing his heavily black city’s ability to weather Katrina and recover from the Gulf Coast disaster.

“And I, to this day, believe that if that would have happened in Orange County, Calif. — if that would have happened in South Beach, Miami — it would have been a different response,” Nagin told the National Association of Black Journalists the following later.

Blacks were 50 percent more likely than whites to think Katrina exposed U.S. racial-inequality problems, Dawson says.

After Obama’s election, whites were even more optimistic about racial harmony than blacks, with nearly 80 percent feeling blacks would soon achieve equality, Dawson found in opinion surveys he conducted while researching the book.

But Obama’s election led to no resurgence of black political effectiveness and no reduction in racial conflict, Dawson’s book argues.

Poverty among African-Americans has continued to rise as the national economy has struggled and black politics remains weak, he said.

Achieving racial and economic equality will require coalition-building and reaching across racial divides, Dawson says.

Cameron unveiling $1.6B in new projects

LONDON, Oct. 31 (UPI) — British Prime Minister David Cameron plans to unveil funding for $1.6 billion for projects he said would create 35,000 jobs, a deputy prime minister said.

The Daily Telegraph reported Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said Cameron’s plan calls for new investment in more than 100 projects that should bring billions of pounds of additional spending in the private sector.

“What we’re trying to do is invest public money, taxpayers’ money, into companies which can create jobs that last,” Clegg said on a BBC program.

For every pound invested from a “regional growth fund,” he said, the government estimates the private sector will spend 6 pounds.

Clegg said the projects include two new power stations among six “shovel-ready” projects.

“We are trying to rewire the British economy so we are less reliant on the city of London and financial services and we’re giving more backing to manufacturing and to parts of the country which for too long were basically reliant on handouts from Whitehall,” he said.

The Telegraph said Britain has been struggling to rebound from the recession and economists expected only a slight increase in the gross domestic project from July to September.

The projects being announced will benefit industries including the telecommunications, services, hospitality, electronics and automotive sectors, Whitehall sources said.

Catholics challenge Crystal Cathedral sale

SANTA ANA, Calif., Oct. 31 (UPI) — Roman Catholic Church officials have asked a California bankruptcy court to block the sale of the Crystal Cathedral to Chapman University.

The Diocese of Orange (Calif.) said in a recent court petition that it has made a better offer for the 40-acre site south of Los Angeles and the Chapman offer should be rejected.

The administrators of the cathedral property said last week they had selected Chapman’s offer of $50 million for the property. The diocese says its offer is $53.6 million and contends it will have a better chance of paying off the creditors.

The Orange County (Calif.) Register said Monday both plans include provisions to lease the landmark church back to its current owners, Crystal Cathedral Ministries, as well as a buy-back option.

Chapman is offering a five-year plan. The Catholics propose a three-year deal and moving the ministry to an alternative site at a reduced rate.

The diocese maintains in its petition that the terms of the Chapman proposal are too expensive for Crystal Cathedral Ministries and would likely result in an default down the road.

A hearing on the proceedings will be held Nov. 14.

Video of Perry speech excerpts goes viral

MANCHESTER, N.H., Oct. 31 (UPI) — A video of excerpts of a speech by Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry in New Hampshire has gone viral and drawn comments about his behavior.

As of midafternoon Monday the roughly 8-minute, 30-second montage highlighting some of the 25-minute speech before Cornerstone conservative think tank in Manchester, N.H., had 205,530 views since it was posted two days earlier.

Some viewers of the edited version said the Texas governor appeared less than sober but others said they thought his behavior was “giddy” or just looser than he has been in the various Republican debates, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Perry spoke at the organization’s annual fundraising event Friday.

The Huffington Post said the YouTube clip encapsulated elements of his stump message — family values, less government regulation and lower taxes, for example — that people attending the speech noted as well.

In the 25-minute video of his speech, Perry received at least one standing ovation and several extended periods of rousing applause.

In an e-mail to the Huffington Post Saturday, Perry campaign spokesman Mark Miner said, “The governor is passionate about the issues he talks about.”

The edited version is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M4gz97Y9W8 and the full version is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TtsjT70eME

Hospital ordered to pay big for baby swap

URALS, Russia, Oct. 31 (UPI) — A Russian court has ordered a hospital pay $101,200 each to two families whose children were accidentally swapped at birth 12 years ago.

The Belyayev and Iskanderov families asked for $165,941 each in moral compensation from the hospital, but the court in Urals ordered Monday that each family get $101,200, RIA Novosti reported.

The swap was discovered after the Belyayevs filed for divorce and the father requested their daughter’s DNA for a paternity test. The test revealed neither of the Belyayev were the biological parents of their daughter and a police investigation discovered their actual daughter was living with the Iskanderovs.

When the girls were born 12 years ago, the staff at in the maternity ward at a Chelyabinsk region hospital mixed up the baby tags after the mothers gave birth.

Natalia Shtreker, a lawyer for the complainants, said both families were pleased with the outcome and would not be seeking appeals.

“We are satisfied with the result and with the amount of compensation. We believe that it [the amount] is fair,” she said.

The girls are reportedly having trouble taking in the information that the people who raised them are not their biological parents. Both families have expressed their reluctance to switch the girls back.

Shtreker said the biggest problem is that the Iskanderovs, originally from Tajikistan, brought their girl up as a Muslim.

“It is difficult to say how this problem will be resolved in the future. Even the parents have still not decided how to cope with it,” Shtreker said.

Prince Charles has secret veto power

LONDON, Oct. 31 (UPI) — A little-known loophole in the British Constitution has been used several times to allow Prince Charles to exert veto power on government bills, lawmakers say.

Ministers have sought the prince’s consent on at least 12 bills since 2005 through a secretive constitutional loophole that gives him the right to veto legislation that may impact his private life, The Guardian reported.

Lawmakers have asked Prince Charles to draft bills on issues such as road safety, gambling, and the London Olympics. Neither the government nor prince of Wales representatives will reveal what, if any, amendments to legislation the prince has requested, or why he was asked for his consent.

“Communications between the prince or his household and the government are confidential under a long-standing convention that protects the heir to the throne’s right to be instructed in the business of government in preparation for his future role as monarch,” said a spokesman for the heir to the British throne.

Officials have called for the immediate publication of the prince’s use of this loophole over concern that he is interfering in British politics.

“We should know why he is being asked and the government should publish the answers,” said Lord Berkeley, who was last month told to seek Charles’ consent on a marine navigation bill. “If he is given these powers purely because he owns land in Cornwall it is pretty stupid. What about the other landowners who must also be affected by changes to legislation?”

The controversy comes after concern has been raised about the prince overstepping his role by lobbying ministers directly on issues such as traditional architecture and the environment.

Miami wrestles with rain, flooding

MIAMI, Oct. 31 (UPI) — Weather forecasters warned Miami-area residents to beware of flooded intersections and overflowing canals Monday as rains soak ed South Florida.

A flash-flood warning was in effect late Monday for much of Miami-Dade County as another line of showers moved across the state.

“For the evening trick or treating, it could be a little wet for the most part,” Bob Ebaugh of the National Weather Service told the Miami Herald. “As the evening progresses, it will be drying off.”

Any respite was welcome. Double-digit rainfall totals during the weekend left behind plenty standing water. Tow trucks were busy pulling vehicles out of flooded streets and several cities broke out pumps to prevent water from getting into homes and businesses.

The Herald said some small boats sank while tied to docks after they filled up with rain water.

Kosovo Serbs block EU official

KOSOVSKA MITROVICA, Kosovo, Oct. 31 (UPI) — Kosovo Serbs blocked a European security force leader from reaching the Serbian border Monday after youths threw rocks at NATO peacekeepers, officials said.

The blocking of Andy Sparkes, deputy head of a European Union police and civilian mission in Kosovo under U.N. authority — who was traveling in a convoy with Erhard Drews, commander of the NATO-led Kosovo Force — followed Albanian youth rock-throwing Sunday night at the Kosovo Force in the ethnically divided northern Kosovo city of Kosovska Mitrovica, police said.

The Serbs in Kosovska Mitrovica were willing to let Drews’ Kosovo Force vehicles pass, but not Sparkes’ EU vehicle, the Serbian Tanjug news agency reported.

Sparkes said in a statement the checkpoint blockade was “not a good message” to EU member states that support the police and judicial mission, known as the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo, or EULEX. The mission is expected to remain in Kosovo until at least June 2012.

Blocking the EU “is blocking your European future,” Sparkes’ statement said.

Police in Kosovska Mitrovica said Sunday night the two NATO vehicles hit by rocks were damaged, but no soldiers were injured.

Kosovska Mitrovica has been divided between an Albanian-majority south and a Serb-majority north since the Kosovo War ended in 1999.

Iraqi Kurdish leader to meet with Turks

ANKARA, Turkey, Oct. 31 (UPI) — Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani will visit Turkey to discuss cooperation in dealing with the Kurdistan Workers Party guerilla movement, officials said.

Barzani is to meet Saturday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Anatolia news agency reported.

Today’s Zaman said the talks are expected to focus on cooperation between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds against the militant party, known as the PKK, that uses Kurdish-run northern Iraq as its base for attacks on Turkey.

Twenty-four Turkish soldiers were killed Oct. 19 in a series of attacks near the border with Iraq.

Officials in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, have expressed solidarity with Turkey,Today’s Zaman said.

Ariz. desert drug ring dismantled

PHOENIX, Oct. 31 (UPI) — U.S. officials said Monday they had broken up a significant Mexican drug smuggling operation in the Arizona desert.

Operation Pipeline Express lasted 17 months and “dealt a significant blow” to a smuggling ring that moved an estimated $33 million worth of various drugs through the western Arizona desert every month, Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said.

Horne, along with federal and Pinal County law enforcement officials, told reporters in Phoenix the alleged smugglers used vehicles and hikers with backpacks to haul marijuana, cocaine and heroin across the desert from Mexico to stash houses in Phoenix. The drugs, estimated at 330 tons per year, were then shipped out to distributors across the United States.

“I find it completely unacceptable that Arizona neighborhoods are treated as a trading floor for narcotics,” Horne said.

The operation resulted in three major sweeps in the Phoenix area by state, local and federal officers that have resulted in 76 arrests. The latest occurred last week with the arrests of 22 suspects and the seizure of two tons of marijuana.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement department said in a written statement intelligence gathered during Operation Pipeline Express indicated the alleged smuggling ring was controlled by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel. The cartel appeared to have a virtual monopoly on trafficking along the Arizona border and had been in operation at least five years.

“During that timeframe, authorities conservatively estimate the ring has smuggled more than 3.3 million pounds of marijuana, 20,000 pounds of cocaine and 10,000 pounds of heroin into to the United States, generating almost $2 billion in illicit proceeds,” the statement said.

Second Energy-Department Backed Green Company Files For Bankruptcy

A Massachusetts-based company that was the recipient of a $43 million Energy Department loan has filed for bankruptcy, another critical blow for green energy efforts in the wake of the Solyndra collapse, The Hill reported.

Beacon Power Corp., a company that develops energy storage systems, filed for bankruptcy protection in a U.S. Bankruptcy court in Delaware, according to the news outlet.

The company had received the Federal loan guarantee to help build an energy storage plant in Stephentown, N.Y. Beacon filed for bankruptcy two days after the White House ordered an independent 60-day evaluation of the loan programs that came from the Energy Department, The Hill reported.

“This latest failure is a sharp reminder that DOE has fallen well short of delivering the stimulus jobs that were promised, and now taxpayers find themselves millions of more dollars in the hole,” Representative Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) told the news outlet.

Bloomberg reported that the company had failed to generate enough funding from private investors to remain afloat. The business is due about $39.1 million from the Federal loan program.

Cause of ex-model’s death still a mystery

CAMP PENDLETON, Calif., Oct. 31 (UPI) — Police say the death of a former Penthouse model whose body washed ashore in Southern Californi earlier this year remains under investigation.

Anneka Vasta, also known as Anneka Di Lorenzo, who was found Jan. 4 on a beach near Camp Pendleton, did not appear to be the victim of a homicide or sexual assault, the Los Angeles Times reported Monday.

She was found naked, face down on a stretch of beach used by the Marine Corps for training.

An autopsy concluded Vasta had suffered a broken neck and back before she drowned but it remained unclear how she got down to the beach from a 50-foot-tall bluff where she had parked her car, or why she had checked in to a motel in nearby Carlsbad.

A knife with a small amount of blood on it was found in her car and Vasta’s body had superficial cuts on the wrists and two shallow wounds on her chest that may have come from a failed attempt at suicide, autopsy records said.

Vasta was Penthouse Pet of the Year in 1975 and then had a brief career in movies.

In recent years, investigators said, she had financial problems and was “emotionally fragile.”

Mother found dead next to infant son

DETROIT, Oct. 31 (UPI) — Police in Michigan say they are investigating the apparent overdose death of a 19-year-old woman found dead next to her 5-month-old son.

Oakland County Sheriff’s officials said neighbors of the woman, who reportedly had a history of drug use, told them they saw her early Saturday and became worried when they didn’t see her after that time, The Detroit News reported.

The neighbors went to the woman’s Pontiac home Saturday evening and found her unresponsive next to her infant, who was unharmed, police said.

Child Protective Services was notified about the baby and contacted the dead woman’s brother, who took custody of the child, sheriff’s officials said.

The woman’s identity had not been released, the newspaper said.

Poll: Very religious whites lean to GOP

PRINCETON, N.J., Oct. 31 (UPI) — More than twice as many very religious white Americans identify with or lean toward the Republican Party than those who identify as Democrats, a poll found.

Sixty-two percent of respondents in a Gallup poll who identified themselves as “very religious” said they identify with the GOP compared with 27 percent of the very religious who said they leaned toward the Democratic Party, a Gallup release said Monday.

Among non-religious whites the percentages reversed, with respondents more likely to affiliate with the Democratic Party by a 17 percentage-point margin.

For white Americans who identified themselves as moderately religious, 48 percent said they leaned Republican against 36 percent who identified with Democrats.

Gallup Daily tracked data from more than 116,000 telephone interviews with adults 18 and over from July 1 through Oct. 26 with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 1 percentage point.

Lee Dougherty denies Colo. spree charges

WALSENBURG, Colo., Oct. 31 (UPI) — Lee Grace Dougherty pleaded innocent in a Colorado courtroom Monday to charges arising from her alleged cross-country crime spree with her two brothers.

Dougherty, 29, was arraigned in Huerfanou County in Walsenburg on charges that include attempted murder and assault.

She is scheduled to stand trial Feb. 12. Ryan and Dylan Dougherty will be in court for a disposition hearing Nov. 28, KRDO-TV in Colorado Springs, Colo., reported.

The three siblings, referred to in some media reports as the Dougherty Gang, allegedly went on a brief but high-profile crime spree in August. They allegedly robbed a bank in Georgia and traded shots with police in their home state of Florida before being captured at the end of a high-speed chase along Interstate 25 in rural Colorado.

Obama order tackles drug shortages

WASHINGTON, Oct. 31 (UPI) — U.S. President Obama Monday signed an executive order the White House says will help reduce prescription drug shortages and fight price gouging.

In his order, Obama directs the Food and Drug Administration to expand reporting of potential shortages of some prescription drugs and to expedite regulatory reviews that could either help respond to shortages or prevent them.

Obama’s executive order also directs the FDA to work with the Justice Department to investigate whether potential shortages have led to illegal price gouging or stockpiling of life-saving medications.

“[Recently], we have seen how the potential of drug shortages for vital drugs, including some cancers, can really have an adverse impact on patients and those who are caring for patients,” Obama said. “Sometimes we run out of or run low on certain types of drugs, and that drives up prices and it increases patient risk.”

While the FDA has been successful in preventing a crisis, “this is one of those slow-rolling problems that could end up resulting in disaster for patients and health care facilities all across the country,” Obama said.

Congress has been trying to address this matter since February, but hasn’t done anything yet, Obama said.

“[We] we can’t wait for action on the Hill — we’ve got to go ahead and move forward,” the president said in remarks just before signing the latest order as part of his “We Can’t Wait” program of executive action without congressional approval since Congress failed to pass his jobs bill.

“We’ll still be calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that will provide additional tools to the FDA and others that can make a difference,” Obama said. “But until they act, we will go ahead and move.”

Obama said the order requires drug companies to “let us know earlier about the potential for drug shortages so that we can respond successfully.”

If federal officials learn that prices are being driven up because shortages are worsening because of manipulations of companies or distributors, “we are making sure that we stop those practices,” he said.

“So there’s a combination of tools that are going to be contained in this executive order that can make sure that lifesaving drugs are available,” Obama said, “and if we start seeing shortages, that we’re able to catch those ahead of time … .”

Falling death rate cuts funeral profits

MADRID, Oct. 31 (UPI) — Despite the adage “nothing is certain but death and taxes,” Spanish funeral parlors say they’re feeling the pinch from the slow economy and fewer deaths.

Funeral directors say the death rate in Spain is dropping and families of the deceased are cutting costs when it comes to funeral services, thinkSpain reported Monday.

The number of deaths in 2010 was down 3 percent from the previous year and was down 5 percent over the first 10 months of this year, the National Organization of Funeral Services said.

Funeral parlors are trying to boost profits with new products such as biodegradable urns, shrouds and coffins. Some are also handling digital memory clearing, which includes closing the deceased’s online accounts, notifying their e-mail contacts of the death and clearing all their information off the Internet.

The average cost of a funeral in Spain is between $2,500 and $2,800, funeral directors said.

Hague finds Seselj in contempt for book

THE HAGUE, Netherlands, Oct. 31 (UPI) — The Hague Tribunal in the Netherlands has sentenced Serb Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj to 18 months in prison for contempt of court.

The court said Seselj was guilty of disclosing confidential information about protected witnesses in a book he wrote, the Serbian news agency Tanjug reported Monday.

“[Seselj] knew he was disclosing information which identified 10 of the witnesses …,” the court said.

This was the second trial for contempt of the Tribunal against Seselj. In the first case Seselj was sentenced to 15 months of imprisonment for disclosing confidential information, Tanjug reported.

He will serve the 15 months concurrently with the 18-month sentence he received Monday, the tribunal ruled.

The contempt convictions have come during Seselj’s ongoing trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity and violation of the laws and customs of war in Croatia, Vojvodina and Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1991 to 1993.

That indictment was unsealed Feb. 14, 2003, and Seselj voluntarily turned himself into the Hague 10 days later.

Catholic school forbids Halloween costumes

HAMILTON, Ontario, Oct. 31 (UPI) — A Roman Catholic school in Hamilton, Ontario, prohibited Halloween costumes because they interfere with education and raise safety and privacy questions.

“Students and staff may wear black and orange all day,” but no costumes, the St. Therese of Lisieux Catholic Elementary School said in a letter.

Children not wearing black and orange were expected to wear the school uniform, the letter said.

The school said it would emphasize the Christian origin of Halloween by beginning the day with “a Liturgy of the Word.”

Halloween is thought to have been influenced by the Christian All Saints’ Day — also known as Hallowmas, All Hallows or Hallowtide — and All Souls’ Day, Nov. 1 and 2 respectively.

“Halloween” as a word dates from the 16th century Scottish variant of the fuller All Hallows Even, or evening, the night before All Hallows Day.

Parent Lynda Fraser told CTV News the school’s decision to “cancel” Halloween was a disservice to students.

“Halloween is an event all children look forward to every year,” she wrote in an e-mail. “While they can still have their fun and celebration at home and in the evening, many children look forward to the school day celebration where they get to wear their costumes for their friends and have a class party.”

Children tend to lose focus and get worse grades when they don’t enjoy school, she said.

European Commission ‘pushed aside’

BONN, Germany, Oct. 31 (UPI) — A former president of the European Commission says the body is being “pushed aside” in agreements about institutional organization in eurozone countries.

“As far as the agreements about the future institutional organization in the eurozone are concerned, I’m very disappointed,” Jacques Delors told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “The end result resembles a machine with a thousand intricate parts. New groups and new presidential positions are being created, but how it all is supposed to work remains unclear.”

Delors, who was president of the commission from 1985-1994, said the plan to halve Greece’s debt and increase the main bailout fund to $1.4 trillion was “solid.”

“The banks accepted a big sacrifice on their parts to save Greece. Given the situation, that’s about the best you can hope for,” he said.

But he said steps to be taken throughout the eurozone “were negotiated like a poker game among the EU members.”

“That sort of went against the method of working as a community,” Delors said. “In that sense, the European Commission was pushed aside. Now there are four or five groups. The EU is divided.

“But the community approach has proved itself in the past: Europe has made progress when it was used. That’s the only method that is simple and efficient. It forces the governments to make decisions together.”

Delors said the summit had to “put out the fire burning in the eurozone but the community of Europe has suffered and the commission has suffered a loss of authority.”

Delors played a major role in EU integration, the creation of a single European market and the treaty that turned the European Community into the European Union in 1992.

College application process may change

LONDON, Oct. 31 (UPI) — A proposed change in the college application process in the United Kingdom would have students applying after receiving their A-level exam results.

Currently, students apply for courses based on predicted grades, The Daily Telegraph reported. Under the reforms proposed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service Sunday, students would take the tests earlier and apply after they get the results.

UCAS said heavy reforms are necessary because the current system is “complex, lacks transparency for many applicants, and is inefficient and cumbersome for [universities].”

Only 51.7 percent of all test result predictions are accurate, with 41.7 percent being over-predictions, The Independent reported.

The proposal received generally positive reviews from university associations and students.

“We are supportive of a review,” Professor Eric Thomas, president of Universities UK, said. “There may well be a case for making the applications system more efficient and user-friendly for applicants.”

Usman Ali, vice president of the National Union of Students, said the student group welcomes the change.

“These are clearly very carefully constructed proposals, and we would certainly expect they are given careful consideration and not dismissed out of hand — particularly not by those universities with the most work to do to ensure access is widened for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” Usman said.

The proposal, now under consultation until January, could be implemented as early as 2014. This would be the first major change in the college application process in the United Kingdom since 1961.

Non-French-speaking official under fire

OTTAWA, Oct. 31 (UPI) — The man proposed as Canada’s next auditor general is unqualified because he doesn’t speak French, the opposition New Democratic Party and Bloc Quebecois said.

The federal government’s own career posting says the $322,900-a-year government auditor position requires “proficiency in both official languages is essential,” the parties and the Liberal Party of Canada said.

Michael Ferguson, New Brunswick’s deputy finance minister, was nominated by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper for the role last week.

Harper’s government says Ferguson — who was to testify before a House of Commons committee Monday and before the entire House Tuesday — is learning French and is committed to becoming bilingual.

Graham Fraser, the federal government’s commissioner of official languages, told Postmedia Network Canada Corp. he wouldn’t comment specifically on Ferguson’s case, but said mastery of English and French was “a key leadership competency” for senior government officials.