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The case of the airmailed voter and other tales of the Cook Is

If you have ever received a letter from the Cook Islands, chances are the envelope arrived with the stamps torn off. Someone pinched them en route. Anyone fortunate enough to have the postage come intact will soon appreciate what collectors around the world want to get their hands on.

In 1965, the year the Cook Islands gained its independence from New Zealand, the new prime minister, Sir Albert Royle Henry (somewhat of a Huey Long of the South Seas), was snooping for something to shore up his economy's growth curve, which sagged like an old sofa. Would it be deep-sea fishing? Pineapples? Grass skirts? No, he decided to go wholeheartedly after the business of the world's largest hobby group: stamp collecting.

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He hired Finbar B. Kenny, a shrewd international stamp dealer in New York. In no time, four-color photogravure commemoratives of sailing ships, tropical fish, and Britain's royal family were rolling off the Fournier stamp presses in Spain with ''COOK ISLANDS'' emblazoned on the lower border. The elegant designs and printing, coupled with tightfisted international controls, soon gave the Cooks a footing in the philately market akin to that of De Beers in the world of diamonds. While Cook Islanders collectively spend a mere pittance on postage - to $2 million a year for the stamps this tiny nation produces.

Mr. Kenny's firm, the Cook Islands Development Company, a subsidiary of the New York-based Kenny International -Corporation, has the exclusive franchise as the Cooks' overseas postal agent, and splits the profits 50-50 with the government. Like many of the Europe's vest-pocket kingdoms (Monaco, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and others), the Cook Islands rely on stamp sales as a major source of revenue. Until the recent push for tourism, stamps were the Cooks' largest source of income, supplying one-fifth of the government's budget.

Where there is money, politicians will meddle, and this sleepy republic is no exception. By 1978 Albert Henry, the former New Zealand cabdriver-turned-politician, had ruled the Cook Islands for 13 years through nepotism and corruption. In the meantime he had been knighted by Queen Elizabeth , but that didn't seem to impress the voters, who were growing tired of his heavy-handed reign. ''The old man,'' as Henry was known to friend and foe, knew he was in for a close election in 1978. Seeing that his campaign coffers were nearly empty, he went to Kenny that March and asked for an advance of $337,000 on the next year's philatelics revenue.

Kenny handed over the cash. With the stamp money, earmarked for the islanders' old-age pension program, Henry hired six Boeing 737s and flew in 450 supporters from New Zealand to vote on election day. (Under the law at the time, Cook Islanders living in New Zealand - where the majority of them live - could not vote in island elections unless they were physically present. After the 1978 election the government allowed Cook Islanders living abroad to cast absentee ballots for a single member of Parliament who would represent them.) With the airlifted votes Henry won the election by a nose. The chief justice subsequently nullified the 450 votes, chucked Henry out of office, and installed as prime minister his opponent, Sir Thomas Davis, a part-Welsh, part-Maori doctor who served in the early days of the US space program.

Meanwhile, Kenny, the stamp dealer, became the first American to plead guilty of violating the 1977 Foreign -Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits Americans from paying bribes overseas to increase business. The courts considered the advance a bribe, and the US Justice Department slapped Kenny with a $50,000 criminal fine. He eventually returned $337,000 to the Cook government. Davis, claiming ''no one else could do the job,'' invited Kenny to keep his Cook Islands stamp monopoly.

The Philatelic Bureau, opposite Rarotonga's only traffic circle, slouches on the ground floor of a two-story air-conditioned office building, the first built in the Cook Islands. Upstairs is the office of the New Zealand representative responsible for helping the islands in foreign affairs, defense, and economic assistance, to the tune of some $7 million yearly. The bureau is managed by Jim Little and his wife, Greta, who were in charge during the 1978 scandal. To this day they shun journalists like the plague.

For three days I tried to see Little, but his wife kept telling me he ''just stepped out to a meeting.'' One of Little's employees confided otherwise: ''Mr. Little's been at his desk all day but told us: 'If the reporter comes by, tell him I'm out.' '' My last day on Rarotonga, I caught Little on his way back from lunch and buttonholed him for 20 minutes in his paneled cinder-block office.

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Little, a balding fellow with rough complexion, wore a baby blue shirt with a pineapple stamped on it. He said he had lived in the Cooks for 23 years and had his hand in a number of business concerns. But he shied away from talking about his own commercial interests, the 1978 stamp scandal, or the enormous profits generated by his bureau. He did offer to share a few jottings from a stamp talk he had given to a group of island schoolchildren. Without waiting for my response, Little pulled a stack of pink notecards from his desk drawer and began:

''I had to research the whole thing in the library,'' he said. ''I hope you don't mind, it mostly comes out of the Britannica. Well let's see . . . '' He continued to fumble through his cards. ''In 1835, Rowland, that's R-O-W-L-A-N-D, Hill, an English schoolteacher, designed the world's first stamp, though the postal service actually started in England in 1635. Hill called it 'a bit of paper just large enough to bear the stamp and covered on the back with a glutinous wash, which might, by applying a little moisture, attach to the back of the letter.'

''The tradition of ornate Cook Islands stamps dates back to the 1890s, said Little, who surmised the extraordinary demand among philatelists had something to do with the fact that ''everybody's a Gauguin buff, I suppose. Romance of the South Seas and all that, you know.'' In addition to their aesthetics, Cook Islands stamps happen to be blue-chip investments. A block of four ordinary $10 stamps sold in 1967, for example, is now worth in excess of $1,000. The bureau keeps its own secret mailing list, said to number over 10,000 collectors in 40 countries, all eagerly awaiting word of new issues. ''We've got 26 girls answering requests, and the big sellers this year were the royal wedding and the 80th birthday of the Queen Mother. We tend to follow royalty,'' said Little with his best Commonwealth lilt. ''And your American space program, too. Our prime minister used to work for NASA, you know, and one of the early space vehicles splashed down off our Palmerston Island.

''Little cut our conversation short after making a passing reference to the new competition: ''Kiribati and Tuvalu (formerly the Gilbert and Ellice Islands) are the talk of the stamp world. Only recently have they become independent, and every collector wants to begin with the first issue. For stamp collectors, Kiribati and Tuvalu are the Cinderellas of the South Pacific.''

And as long as the new nations use their stamps to send letters and not to rig elections, their princes won't turn into frogs. But that's another fairy tale altogether.

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