As Leon E. Panetta ends a decades-long Washington career capped by his service as defense secretary, he has said repeatedly that he is ready to get back to his family’s bucolic walnut ranch off the central coast of California.
But while serving as CIA director and defense secretary for the past four years, he has been commuting back to Monterey, Calif., nearly every weekend on the taxpayers’ dime.
Even though Mr. Panetta acknowledges traveling to California on a near-weekly basis, he has declined to say exactly how many trips he has made and has failed to respond to inquiries asking for copies of receipts of his reimbursements to the federal government for the personal travel. The repayments are mandated by federal law.
After 40 years of public service, starting out as a U.S. congressman and ending at the top civilian post at the Pentagon with a stint as the nation’s top spymaster in between, Mr. Panetta, 74, may deserve a peaceful retirement and a more relaxed schedule that allows him to help run the eponymous Panetta Institute for Public Policy that he and his wife founded years ago.
He repeatedly has waxed poetic — and sometimes comedic — about returning to his farm, which he inherited from his Italian-immigrant parents.
“The time has come for me to return to my wife, Sylvia, and my walnut farm, dealing with a different set of nuts,” he said to laughter at the White House in early January.
But even after the trips back home fueled criticism from rank-and-file servicemen and the media, Mr. Panetta has ignored requests to provide a full accounting of the cross-country commute.
The Washington Times first asked Mr. Panetta about the trips in November 2011. At the time, he acknowledged flying home 14 times since taking over as defense secretary in July — nearly every weekend — and had no plans to curtail the trips.
If he continued to go home nearly every weekend, the taxpayer tab for his time as defense secretary alone would top $3 million by now, and he would be required to pay back a fraction of that cost.
For security reasons, the government requires all defense secretaries to use the military equivalent of a Gulfstream jet for all travel. When he agreed to take top jobs at the CIA and the Pentagon, Mr. Panetta worked out a deal with President Obama to allow the trips back to California, a defense official said at the time.
“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.”
Getting his ‘mind straight’
After news of the costly taxpayer-funded cross-country commute stirred criticism last year, Mr. Panetta said he regretted the costs and would try to find a way to economize even as he defended the practice, saying the time in California helps relieve stress and keeps his “mind straight.”
In a farewell interview with National Public Radio that aired over the weekend, Mr. Panetta didn’t sound as if he regretted the costs or that he ever tried to rein them in when asked why it was so important for him to fly home on weekends at taxpayer expense.