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White House denies ‘deal’ on Panetta’s commute

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Contradicting an account by a Pentagon official, the White House is denying that President Obama struck a "deal" with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta to allow him to commute home to California most weekends on a military aircraft at a cost of $32,000 per round-trip flight and a total of $860,000 as of early April.

"There's no deal here," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Tuesday when pressed on the issue. "The secretary has addressed the matter. He, I think, spoke about it, and he has decided to try to find a way, if there is, to reduce the cost. But, you know, I don't have anything to add to it."

Mr. Carney was responding to a question about whether the White House or Mr. Obama had negotiated with Mr. Panetta to allow the California commuting arrangement before Mr. Panetta accepted the Pentagon post.

The defense secretary must use military aircraft for security and communications purposes even during personal travel, but previous defense secretaries have lived in and around the Washington area and did not regularly travel across the country.

Earlier this week, Mr. Panetta said he regrets the cost of the commute and will try to find a way to economize in the future, but he still maintained that the trips home to his family's walnut ranch in Monterey, Calif., are important.

"I've gone home because my wife and family are there and because, frankly, I think it's healthy to get out of Washington periodically just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight," he told reporters Monday at the Pentagon.

In November of last year, The Washington Times reported that at that point Mr. Panetta had flown home 14 times, continuing the cross-country trips he made regularly as CIA director, and had no plans to rein in the expensive travel.

Mr. Panetta is required to repay just a fraction of the costs — the equivalent of a commercial round-trip ticket — for the personal travel, according to federal rules.

A Defense Department official told The Washington Times that Mr. Panetta negotiated the commuting arrangements with the White House before he accepted the job.

"The White House understood when Mr. Panetta took the job that he would return to Monterey to visit his family, as he did when he was director of the CIA," a senior administration official said at the time. "That's where his family lives, after all."

Amid outcry over wasteful spending at a General Services Administration conference that cost top officials their jobs, Mr. Panetta earlier this month admitted to paying just $17,000 for his share of the cost of the 27 round trips, approximately $630 per visit.

The defense secretary's travel costs have attracted additional scrutiny after Mr. Obama in November asked his Cabinet members to cut back on all expenses, from cellphone use to official gifts such as pencils and mugs to travel costs.

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