Panetta paid $17K for $860K commute to California

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Amid fallout over a lavish General Services Administration conference that cost top officials at the agency their jobs, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta late Thursday admitted to paying just $17,000 for his commuting costs for 27 trips back to his Monterey, Calif., home on a military aircraft.

Before accepting the job as defense secretary, Mr. Panetta negotiated his right to commute home to California nearly every weekend using a military equivalent of a Gulfstream jet, as his job as Pentagon chief requires him to do.

The trips cost the government as much as $860,000, and Mr. Panetta paid about $630 per trip for a roundtrip flight that costs the Pentagon about $32,000, defense officials told the Associated Press.

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

At the time, the Defense Department refused to provide information about Mr. Panetta’s reimbursements and the Freedom of Information Act requests The Washington Times submitted received no response.

“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.”

With the drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, constant terrorism threats and crises, running the Pentagon is anything but a 9-to-5 office job, and the California weekends help him recharge, a government official said at the time.

“He works virtually nonstop wherever he is, including on the weekends, and believes that he does some of this best thinking when he’s away from Washington,” the official said. “That kind of recharge helps inform his thoughts on how to move DOD forward and on how to support the men and women in uniform he’s proud to lead.”

Mr. Panetta’s cross-country commuting was first reported by the Los Angeles Times in September, although that report did not detail the extent of the trips. The expenses involved with the commute drew another look after President Obama issued marching orders in November calling for all Cabinet agencies to cut back on everything — from out-of-town conferences to cellphone use and officials gifts such as pencils and mugs. The president singled out travel as an area ripe for savings.

“At a time when families have had to cut back, have had to make some tough decisions about getting rid of things that they don’t need in order to make the investments that they do, we thought that it was entirely appropriate for our governments and our agencies to try to root out waste, large and small, in a systematic way,” Mr. Obama said in announcing the directive.

Earlier this week, GSA Administrator Martha Johnson resigned after the GSA’s inspector general reported that the agency had held a $800,000 conference for employees outside Las Vegas in 2010. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica, a Florida Republican, Thursday asked the GSA to explain an internal program that awarded $200,000 worth of iPods, gift cards and other items for Mr. Mica said were “questionable reasons at best.”

Government rules require Mr. Panetta to use military jets for personal travel for security and in order to stay in touch with military commanders and senior-level administration officials.

Mr. Panetta must reimburse the government for personal travel at the cost of an equivalent commercial coach ticket even though the actual cost of the travel is much higher — $3,200 a flight hour, according the Defense Department.

His ranch has been equipped with a secure telephone and a video-teleconference facility is just a short drive away, aides said, adding that Mr. Panetta, is in constant touch through email and phone calls. Mr. Panetta travels extensively on official business as well, so the setup in California is not much different from the remote communications he must maintain while overseas, they said.

Although cross-country commuting is an expected part of the job for members of Congress, recent defense secretaries have spent most of their time in Washington or overseas.

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