John Stossel
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Last week, Kenneth Lay was convicted of fraud. Prosecutor Sean Berkowitz said that sent a message: "No matter how rich and powerful you are, you have to play by the rules."

No matter how rich, maybe, but the truly powerful get to make their own rules.

Consider the Congressional Record. You probably think it's a record of what our representatives said or did. But that's a myth.

Every night that Congress is in session, stenographers take down every historic word and ship them off to the Government Printing Office. The printing office stays open all night to be sure the official record will be on every member's desk by the following morning. That sounds important.

But the Record isn't a record of what was said in Congress -- the politicians wouldn't subject themselves to that. The Record is a record of what the members want you to think they said.

That's fraud, twice over. It's a fraud on the public, which believes the millions Congress spends on the Record are spent to document what actually happens in Congress. And it's a fraud on those of you who think your congressman talked about you.

The Record reports that Derek Vaught's congressman, Mike Espy, rose on the floor to give a tribute to the lad's karate skills. "I thought it was pretty awesome," Vaught said.

The Record says a congressman rose to pay tribute to rock singer Ted Nugent for being "as good with a bow and arrow as he is with a guitar."

The Record claims that a congressman said, "Mr. Speaker, I ask my colleagues to join me in saluting Dot Hill, who's a legend not only in her own hometown, but throughout the world." (Hill is a drum majorette.)

None of those tributes was ever made, but they're all in print, enshrined in history along with what really was said.

Or wasn't said. A congressman once got angry with a colleague and exclaimed, "You're trying to shut me off? You better not do that, ma'am. . . . Who do you think you are?"

You didn't read that in the Congressional Record. The Congressman or his staff had the Record print his comments this way: "I will say to the gentle lady for whom I have the greatest respect . . ."

The law says the Record must be "substantially a verbatim report." Congressmen use the word "substantially" to print their lies.

Why do they add the silly tributes?

Well, suppose I'm Congressman Stossel, eager to impress my constituents. What's more impressive than public praise in the official Record?

Of course, it would be embarrassing to actually stand in front of my colleagues and talk about Ted Nugent's archery, so I'll just make it seem as if I did. To make it extra convincing, I'll use phrases like, "Mr. Speaker, I rise today . . . " The additions cost taxpayers millions, but so what? They don't cost me anything.

The waste calculates out to almost $675 a page. Derek Vaught's father didn't mind: "If they're going to waste money," he told us, "I'd just as soon they wasted it on my son."

I confronted one representative about it. He'd used the Record for tributes to his grade school, a friend who collected antique cars, the local tennis pro, etc.

He shouted at me: "John . . . what the hell are you doing? . . . Jacking me around with these other politicians who are so dumb they can throw themselves to the ground and miss, who blow hundreds of thousands of dollars on free mail, which I don't abuse, and you're here, talking to me about giving some tributes for achievements made?"

The congressman, Jim Traficant, later was busted for other frauds, and he's now in prison. But as the website FreeTraficant.com says, "Traficant's error wasn't committing fraud and taking money. His error was doing it old style."

Public officials commit fraud all the time. But because they write the rules, they call it "public service."

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John Stossel

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at >johnstossel.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. ©Creators Syndicate