$20.3 million in junk mail

- you got it, you paid for it

WASHINGTON - U.S. House members spent $20.3 million in tax money last year to send constituents what's often the equivalent of junk mail - meeting announcements, tips on car care and job interviews, and just plain bragging.

They sent nearly 116 million pieces of mail in all, many of them glossy productions filled with flattering photos and lists of the latest roads and bridges the lawmaker has brought home to the district, an AP review of public records shows.

"Keep your car properly maintained" to improve mileage, suggested Rep. Tim Murphy, a Western Pennsylvania Republican, in a newsletter on how to deal with rising energy prices. Murphy was one of the House leaders in sending out bulk mail, with 1,003,836 pieces. The price tag: $165,650.

Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., who lost her primary race last year, sent out a newsletter a few months before the election that included this observation: "Convicted felons can vote," she said, if "your" prison sentence has been served, parole or probation completed and fines paid.

Hat-dwelling, plane-riding

monkey dies mysteriously

NEW YORK - A small monkey stashed in a man's hat during a flight to New York has died, and a federal health agency spokeswoman says authorities don't know why.

The fist-sized tamarin was seized as its owner got off a plane at LaGuardia Airport on Aug. 7. The tiny primate apparently escaped detection during a flight from Lima, Peru, and a stopover in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. But the forest-dwelling creature was spotted after it crept out and perched on its owner's ponytail during the trip to New York.

Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention spokeswoman Shelly Diaz says the tamarin showed no signs of illness during a quarantine period. She says the agency was trying to find the animal a permanent home when it died.

Man kills ex's new boyfriend at Taco Bell, then kills self

MINEOLA, N.Y. - A man despondent over a breakup shot and killed another man who had recently started dating his ex-girlfriend, then turned the gun on himself, Nassau County police said yesterday.

Giovanni Cruz, 24, shot 21-year-old Kevin Cruz at the Taco Bell where he worked, Detective Sgt. Anthony Repalone said of the Wednesday night attack. The men were not related to each other.

Giovanni Cruz, of Brooklyn, went behind the counter and shot the other man in the upper body in front of other employees and patrons before fleeing, Repalone said. Officers tracked the shooter down to a residential area and were approaching him when he shot himself once in the chest. He was pronounced dead at the scene, Repalone said.

Kevin Cruz, of Far Rockaway, was taken to Jamaica Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

NASA says Atlantis won't fly

on Jan. 10 as it had hoped

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - NASA engineers are optimistic that they are "days or weeks" away from fixing the technological glitch delaying space shuttle Atlantis' mission to the International Space Station - but acknowledge that it won't launch as soon as they'd hoped.

Space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told reporters yesterday that before a launch date is set, engineers must check out and repair an oversized electrical socket on the outside of Atlantis' fuel tank. "This is probably going to not allow us to fly on Jan. 10," Hale said. "We're probably going to be a little bit after that."

Two weeks ago, Hale had described Jan. 10 as the earliest likely launch date. That will be delayed by days, if not weeks, he said. Atlantis has been stuck on the launch pad since Dec. 6, when fuel gauge-like sensors at the base of its enormous external fuel tank first failed.

FEMA has new PR chief; last

one faked news conference

WASHINGTON - The Federal Emergency Management Agency has hired a new director of public affairs to replace the official who was in charge during a fake news conference in October.

Jonathan Thompson, most recently a deputy assistant defense secretary, will be FEMA's new director of external affairs, FEMA Administrator R. David Paulison said.

The former external affairs director, Pat Philbin, already had accepted a job with the director of national intelligence at the time of the staged news conference, but the director of national intelligence decided not to hire him.

On Oct. 23, reporters were given 15 minutes' notice for what turned into a staged Q&A with FEMA's deputy administrator about the California wildfires. No genuine journalists attended, although they were given a conference call number they could use to listen in but not ask questions.

A half-dozen questions were asked at the event - all by FEMA staff members posing as reporters. *

- Daily News wire services