The Carolina Journal, published by the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation (for which I’ve given paid speeches on occasion) reports that staffers in North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue’s office have been getting advance word on monthly unemployment statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is highly illegal under federal law and violates what I have understood to be a strong tradition in the BLS and other government statistics that no one—no one at all, not even in the White House—gets advanced word ahead of the public announcement of government statistics.
There’s obviously good reason for this: someone with advanced word could place bets in financial and community markets and make lots of money. That’s why Congress provided for penalties of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine for early release of this data. And there’s another excellent reason: government statistical agencies should be free of political influence to insure the integrity of the numbers on which many people depend. My understanding is that an important part of the bureaucratic culture of federal statistical agencies is a pride in their independence and integrity; this is something not to be lightly squandered. Maintaining that culture is vital if the government wants to get highly competent people to dedicate their careers to this important work.
It doesn’t appear from the Carolina Journal story that Perdue tried to or indeed could have influenced the numbers; rather her staffers used the heads-up to craft their press releases, presumably to make Perdue look better. That probably hasn’t been very effective; her poll numbers have been dreadful and she seems to be behind Republican Pat McCrory (48%-39% in a PPP poll released last week) in her 2012 race for reelection. It is quite shocking to think that someone at the BLS is squandering the agency’s integrity just to give a Democratic governor a little edge in writing press releases.
The Carolina Journal also reports that someone in the BLS was giving advance word of statistics to someone in the office of Perdue’s predecessor Democratic Governor Mike Easley in 2003 and 2004. This suggests that the culprit is someone at the BLS who is not a political appointee (since Republicans were in power back then) but with Tarheel Democratic connections or sympathies, and it may not be difficult to identify who that might be. There’s nothing in the Carolina Journal report to suggest that something like this is happening in other states. But it is something the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee should look into.