Panetta gets VIP flights at coach cost

Weekly commute can run $30,000

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Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta commutes home to Monterey, Calif., nearly every weekend on a government jet and reimburses just a fraction of the cost to taxpayers — an arrangement that is coming under scrutiny during Washington’s tough budget times.

Since becoming defense secretary in July, Mr. Panetta has flown home 14 times as of last week, continuing the cross-country commute he made regularly as CIA director, and he has no plans to curtail the trips, his aides said.

“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. “That’s where his family lives, after all.”

Mr. Panetta’s travel situation, first reported by the Los Angeles Times in September, is drawing another look, particularly after President Obama issued marching orders this month calling for all Cabinet agencies to cut back on everything including cellphone use and official gifts such as mugs. But he 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.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, said the extra expense for Mr. Panetta’s commute looks bad given the country’s economic woes.

“Everybody in government has to be looking at the optics at this time with this economy,” Mr. Ellis said. “Making sure you’re being a good steward of the taxpayer’s money comes with the job. Having been the director of the [Office of Management and Budget] and senior staff for the president, I believe Secretary Panetta should understand that the most.”

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. Each round trip from Washington to California and back, in an Air Force equivalent of a Gulfstream jet, can add up to more than $30,000.

Mr. Panetta’s wife, Sylvia, runs the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University, Monterey Bay, which the couple founded when Mr. Panetta first left Washington in 1998. Federal ethics rules prohibit Mr. Panetta from any involvement with the institute while serving in the administration.

With the drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, constant terrorism threats and crises, the defense secretary’s job is anything but 9-to-5, and the California weekends help him recharge, a government official said.

“He works virtually nonstop wherever he is, including on the weekends, and believes that he does some of his 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 help lead.”

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.

In his four months as defense secretary, Mr. Panetta has traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, Belgium, Italy, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and Canada.

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.

Robert M. Gates, who retired this year, maintained a remote lakeside home in Washington state, which he visited several times a year but not most weekends. Donald H. Rumsfeld, who held the job before Mr. Gates, had three homes — one in Taos, N.M., one in Illinois and another in St. Michaels on Maryland’s Eastern Shore - all equipped with secure communication equipment and additional security measures. He spent most of his weekends or breaks in Washington, D.C., or at his St. Michaels escape, according to knowledgeable GOP aides.

David H. Petraeus, who replaced Mr. Panetta as CIA director, has just one home, in the D.C. area.

At least one other member of the president’s Cabinet, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, spends most of his weekends commuting outside Washington, but he does so on his own dime and uses commercial aircraft. Mr. Geithner and his family moved to New York in August, and he travels back most weekends, his spokesman said.

Mr. Panetta and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano are required to use government aircraft even for personal travel.

The situation is less clear for other Cabinet secretaries. The secretaries use the fleet of government jets when traveling overseas when security precautions require it, but they also use the aircraft when the demands of the job force them to work during flights.

Cabinet secretaries are tight-lipped about how often they have turned to this exception and whether it involves any personal travel. Spokesmen for Labor Department Secretary Hilda L. Solis, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius declined to comment about their bosses’ personal travel other than to say that they strictly adhere to federal reimbursement laws. The State Department and other agencies did not respond to inquiries.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill generally gave high marks to Mr. Panetta and were reluctant to criticize him, but several said the arrangement is questionable.

“It’s not something I would do if I were defense secretary, but I’m not going to make a big deal out of it,” said Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and a strong advocate for cutting waste and abuse in government, sold a private plane this year after a series of reports that she had billed taxpayers for a political trip around Missouri and had failed to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes on the aircraft.

When asked about Mr. Panetta’s frequent trips to California, Mrs. McCaskill first said she didn’t think the president’s or defense secretary’s travel was the best place to look for government savings. After learning about Mr. Panetta’s 14 trips to Monterey since July, she reconsidered.

“This is something I think the secretary should speak to in light of the cuts we are going to have to do everywhere,” she said.

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