Since as early as January 2011, and perhaps before then, Gov. Bev Perdue’s press office has received access to confidential employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics hours if not days before its scheduled release, quite likely in violation of federal law. The governor’s staff used its early access to massage the monthly employment press release that reported jobs data to the public.
Documents and correspondence obtained by Carolina Journal show that the Division of Employment Security, formerly known as the Employment Security Commission, sent a draft of the press release each month to Perdue’s press office. The governor’s spokesmen typically rewrote the text and added a positive spin, even if the data did not support Perdue’s talking points.
The glowing quotes were attributed to Lynn Holmes, director of the employment agency, but the documents show the quotes were approved and probably written by a Perdue press aide, either Chrissy Pearson or Mark Johnson.
In several instances, DES spokesman Larry Parker cautioned Pearson or Johnson against using extraneous or unverifiable information in a release to boost Perdue’s image. At times, the Perdue communications team would push back, and the release would undergo several revisions before final publication.
While the operation may sound like a harmless effort to add political spin to the release of jobs data, sharing confidential BLS estimates while they are protected by an embargo violates a federal law barring the early release of employment data. This is no small matter: A conviction for breaching the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002 carries a fine of up to $250,000, up to five years in prison, or both.
The data, including monthly estimates for current job totals, the labor force, and the unemployment rate, are produced by BLS with some minor assistance from the Labor Market Information Division of DES.
Former Gov. Mike Easley’s administration received an early briefing on the employment reports from ESC staff for several months in 2003 and 2004, if not longer, but those briefings apparently stopped after CJ learned of and reported on them in 2004.
Perdue and her staff may not receive formal briefings, but Parker told CJ in September that he shares the jobs report with Perdue’s staff roughly 24 hours before the announced time for the monthly release. Emails obtained by CJ involving Parker, Pearson, Johnson, and in one instance Department of Commerce spokesman Tim Crowley, show officials discussing the data more than 48 hours before the embargo was lifted.
“BLS does not support the release of employment and unemployment data before the established dates and times,” said Janet Rankin, BLS regional commissioner for the southeast office in Atlanta in an email. She notes that states are required to publish the dates they will release employment data on Dec. 31 of the previous year and follow that schedule.
She added that state agencies enter a cooperative agreement with BLS to gain access to its confidential data, and that the agreements “state that estimates cannot be shared outside of the LMI unit until they are final and ready for publication. The data are embargoed until the state predetermined release date and time” (her emphasis).
When CJ reported on the briefings Easley received in 2004, Rankin said at the time: “A person associated with developing the data that is caught releasing it or commenting on it prematurely is subject to fines and jail time.”
CJ initially suspected Perdue was receiving employment information that was under embargo in August, when she discussed information in the jobs report at a meeting of the Rotary Club of Asheville the day before the data were released to the public.
The statewide employment report typically is released the third Friday of each month at 10 a.m. The December statewide employment report will be released Tuesday at 10 a.m. (To download a PDF of the release schedule, click here.)
A review of several 2011 email exchanges reveals how the monthly process, in which Perdue aides insisted on overseeing the releases, worked.
Parker and Johnson had reviewed a draft of the February report no later than Thursday, March 24. The public release had been set for 10 a.m. the following day. In an email sent to Parker at 5:36 p.m. Thursday, Johnson wrote:
Also, please start using the message points that Chrissy included in her email to all the [public information officers]. The Governor’s message on jobs should be reflected. For example, Lynn’s quote could say something to the effect of: ‘As Gov. Perdue continues to fulfill her No. 1 priority of bringing new jobs to North Carolina, the state saw a significant number of job gains in February.
At 8:51 a.m. March 25, an hour before the scheduled release, Parker told Johnson he had difficulty following Pearson’s directive:
Mark, I looked through Chrissy’s generic messaging and found nothing to ‘totally’ fit.
• The most pressing problem in NC and my top priority since taking office has been to create new jobs. (we don’t know how many of these jobs – over-the-month or over-the-year – are new)
• We are in the top ten states to improve our unemployment rate – which has dropped by nearly one-and-a-half points compared to where we were last February. (Our unemployment rate has improved because our labor force has dropped NOT because we have grown jobs. This is a DANGEROUS assumption until more consistent job growth takes hold. The data show this.)
• Since the start of my term, business have pledged to create 58,00 jobs and are investing 12.5 billion dollars – (This is a Commerce number, not ours.)
With that said – here is what I wrote in the revised quote.
‘North Carolina added a significant number of jobs in February,’ said ESC Chairman Lynn R. Holmes. ‘This was the second consecutive month with job gains as several sectors showed improvement. Gov. Perdue’s top priority is growing and keeping jobs in North Carolina, and in February there were a notable amount of job gains as well as over-the-year increase throughout many of the job sectors. Our statewide offices will continue to provide services to assist our state’s citizens who are looking to find work.
Also at 8:51, Parker sent Johnson a slightly different version:
”North Carolina added a significant number of jobs in February,” said ESC Chairman Lynn R. Holmes. “North Carolina experienced back-to-back months of job gains, showing that the state is forging ahead of the difficult recession. The Governor continues to focus on growing jobs in North Carolina and in February there were a notable amount of job gains, as well as over-the-year increases throughout many of the job sectors. Our statewide offices will continue to provide services to assist our state’s citizens who are looking for work.”
At 9:29, Johnson responded to Parker, “Chrissy still needs to review, but see the tweaked version of what you sent below.”
At 10:07, seven minutes after the scheduled public release, Parker had not received a go-ahead from Perdue’s team to finalize the language. “Do we have an update,” he asked Johnson. “BLS has already released the data.”
BLS posts data for all the states on its website at the time designated for release.
The final version released to the public read:
“Clearly Gov. Perdue’s focus on growing jobs in North Carolina should continue to be the No. 1 priority for North Carolina leaders,” said ESC Chairman Lynn R. Holmes. “We are showing signs of slow but steady progress, with job gains in February and over-the-year. Here at the ESC we remain committed to assisting out-of-work citizens with training and services to get them through these hard times and back to work.”
For the April release, the Commerce Department’s Crowley was brought into the discussion. He made the following suggestion:
I actually would take out the word ‘slightly’ in the subhead. There is no need to characterize the 2900 job growth for the press as slightly. They will likely write it that way anyway, but if we don’t put it in … they may focus more on four months job growth overall.”
On Wednesday, July 20, at 5:33 p.m., Parker wrote Pearson the following:
Attached is the release for Friday. I have LMI looking over some educational and claims data. Right now much of the loss in education appears to be at the college level, but overall, a good portion of it historically seasonal. Remember, the ‘public’ education numbers fall under Government. ‘Private’ education fall under Education & Health Services. If you need to discuss tonight – my cell phone is ———.”
The following day at 6:55 a.m., Pearson sent Parker the following:
“Larry, I will have changes for you later this morning – in the meantime, can you please provide me the data on jobs lost due to the [GOP state] budget — do they play in to this rate at all? — and you haven’t given me the reason why — the message — that I asked for on Tuesday — we can’t move forward with this release until we have our talking points ironed out for the gov as much as for you.”
On Wednesday, Aug. 17, at 2:28 p.m., two days before the monthly jobs numbers were released to the public, Johnson responded to a draft press release submitted by Parker. Johnson proposed the following:
“While the private sector gained 6,900 state government jobs decreased by XXX and local government jobs decreased by 11,800. Employment data indicates that a majority of the local government jobs were in education, including teachers. In comparison to the same time last year, there has been an increase in claims in state and local government. This is largely due to an increase in claims in both local and state education.”
At 2:40 p.m., Parker responded:
“Because we don’t know how many teacher [jobs were eliminated], we can’t say that in the sentence. We don’t have any data to show it. The claims data is being looked at but don’t know it to be accurate yet. We have people looking at claims data ASAP but it may take a bit of time. As of right now we can say the following: While the private sector gained 6,900 jobs, state government jobs decreased by 300 and local government jobs decreased by 11,800. Employment data indicates that a majority of the local government jobs were in education.”
To read all the ESC emails mentioned in this story, click here (10.9 MB PDF).
Don Carrington is executive editor of Carolina Journal. Prior to joining The John Locke Foundation, he was deputy director of ESC’s Labor Market Information Division. Managing Editor Rick Henderson provided additional reporting for this article.