New Jersey Governor's Staff Caught Cooking the Books?

In a potentially devastating revelation, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported an e-mail sent by New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine’s deputy chief of staff to Corzine’s cabinet officials apparently urging them to make false claims that Corzine’s policies were creating jobs.  

In the message, Mark Matzen asked department heads to put together events designed to highlight job creation in the private sector.  The events, Matzen wrote, should help, “get our message out [that] the economic policies of Gov. Corzine are working.”  Matzen appeared to suggest that commissioners should go to extraordinary lengths to claim success for the administration’s efforts.

“I know that it might be a stretch for some of you, but please be creative.  While many programs might not [have] created jobs directly, they do have some connection to job creation either through training, giving money to sustain employment or create demand for workers,” Matzen wrote.

Asked about the e-mail later in the day, Corzine at once defended the memo and sought to distance himself from the implication that department heads should massage the administration’s record on jobs.

“I don’t think it’s a newsflash that this administration is focused on jobs, jobs, jobs," Corzine said.  “I never saw the memo. I wouldn’t have used the same language.”

Republican Christopher Christie pounced on the report.  In comments on the e-mail, Christie highlighted New Jersey’s unemployment rate, which is the highest in the Northeast.

“While Jon Corzine is busy looking for a creative way to spin New Jersey’s rising unemployment number into a campaign event, I’m traveling the state talking about how I will bring businesses and permanent jobs back to New Jersey,” Christie said in a campaign statement.  

“Orchestrating events to tout the creation of nonexistent jobs is not going to change the fact we are inching even closer to a 10% unemployment rate.  Struggling New Jerseyans deserve more from their governor than someone who tries to hide his failure behind smoke, mirrors and campaign events.”

The Christie campaign hit hard too, charging Corzine with deceptive campaigning and improperly using his official office for campaign activities.

“It’s very concerning that Governor Corzine appears to be using taxpayer-funded government workers to help assemble campaign-type events for his election,” Christie campaign manager Bill Stepien said. “The Governor has some serious questions to answer.”

One of those questions may be the reliability of the Corzine administration’s reporting on the unemployment rate in New Jersey.  News of the e-mail broke on the same day that the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development released its employment data for September.  The agency reported that 12,000 private sector jobs were lost in the state last month, and the unemployment rate ticked up by one-tenth of a point to 9.8%.

Matzen’s e-mail raises questions about the official unemployment numbers compiled by the Department of Labor. The department has revised its estimate of jobs created downward for five consecutive months, leaving some to question whether the department is cooking the books to put out deliberately optimistic reports, quietly releasing data less flattering to Corzine later.

The Labor Department has joined the Corzine campaign in consistently trying to put the best spin on increasing unemployment in New Jersey.  In June, when unemployment crossed the nine percent threshold for the first time in thirty-two years, State Labor Department Commissioner David Socolow stressed that the loss of just 2,100 jobs identified in the report was the smallest since the recession began in December 2007.

Then in the following month, the department released figures revising the number of jobs lost in the previous report up to 3,100.

Similarly in August, the department released a report highlighting an increase of 13,000 private sector jobs in July, which it reported was offset by public sector losses of 7,100 jobs. Socolow trumpeted the report.  “Governor Corzine’s economic recovery initiatives are fostering job creation, and the nation’s recovery program is helping to restore economic confidence,” he said.  

But in its September report, Socolow’s department cut the estimate of private sector jobs gained in July by more than half to 5,600.  When combined with the 7,100 public sector losses from July, New Jersey actually showed a net loss of 1,500 jobs for the month.  The revision was not as widely reported as the initial estimate of 13,000 private sector jobs added, giving Corzine a much needed boost at the time when his campaign was trailing Christie by double-digits.

After trailing by7-9 points in independent polling released at the beginning of September, Corzine has pulled to within the margin of error in polls released over the past week.  But the incumbent governor still garners only around 40 percent of the vote, breaking through that mark only twice in the last ten surveys taken in the race. Playing fast and loose with job creation numbers and unemployment figures is not likely to increase Corzine’s share of the vote on November 3.