Rep. Fortney H. (Pete) Stark (D-Calif.), a man with a well-known sense of humor, brought some guffaws to the Hill last week with a satirical press release on the Democratic plan to send $32 million in aid to the Nicaraguan contras. Trouble is, at least one newspaper believed it and almost broke into print with Stark's remarkable discovery of a "Civil War-era manuscript."

According to the press release, Stark was rummaging around in an old desk and found what amounted to a press release from Queen Victoria dated Feb. 24, 1864, regarding the House of Commons vote to provide "$32 million in humanitarian aid to the rebels in North America."

The queen allegedly offered assurances that "the money may only be spent on food, clothing and medicine for the rebel army, now encamped in Northern Virginia and recovering from its late reverses at the Battle of Gettysburg. It is Her Britanic Majesty's understanding that the rebel commander, Gen. R.E. Lee, said that the money will help encourage the cause of peace. 'The fighting will stop any minute now because of this aid,' the general is reported to have said. 'The men will take their wheat, woollens and scotch and head home immediately,' continued Mr. Lee."

To show her peaceful intentions, the queen said the Royal Navy rather than Her Majesty's Secret Servant 008 would deliver the aid, and "it is Her Majesty's fervent hope that this humanitarian aid will also be accompanied by Mr. Lincoln's restoring freedom of the press, releasing political prisoners and the general restoration of civil liberties. In this way, the Civil War can be concluded with malice toward none."

Although the Stark staff did not identify the newspaper, The Washington Times noted the Stark letter in Friday's editions, quoted the Stark staff as acknowledging it was a "hoax," and quoted a "disappointed" reporter as asking, "Aren't you afraid people are going to take this seriously?"