As Leon Panetta ends a decades-long Washington career capped by his service as defense secretary, he has said repeatedly he is ready to get back to his family’s bucolic walnut ranch off the central coast of California.
But over the last four years, while serving a CIA director and defense secretary, he already has been spending a lot of time there, continuing a cross-country commute back to Monterey, Calif. nearly every weekend on the taxpayer’s dime.
Even though Mr. Panetta acknowledges traveling back to California on nearly a weekly basis, he has declined to say exactly how many trips he has made over his tenure as CIA director and defense secretary and has failed to respond to inquiries asking for copies of receipts of his reimbursements to the federal government for the personal travel — repayments that are mandated by federal law.
After 40 years of public service, starting out as a U.S. congressman and ending as the top civilian post at the Pentagon with a stint as the nation’s top spymaster in between, no one can deny that Mr. Panetta, 74, deserves a peaceful retirement and a more relaxed schedule that allows him to help run the eponymous Panetta Institute for Public Policy he and his wife founded a number of years ago.
He has repeatedly waxed poetic — and sometimes comedic —– about returning to his walnut farm in Monterey, Calif., 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 admitted to flying home 14 times since taking over as defense secretary in July — nearly every weekend — and had no plans to curtail the trips.
Each flight home and back cost the Pentagon an estimated $32,000, but Mr. Panetta is only required to pay $630 per trip — the cost of an equivalent roundtrip commercial flight.
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 only 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, and when agreeing to take top jobs at the CIA and Pentagon, Mr. Panetta had 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.”
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 in the future 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 like he regretted the costs at all or ever tried to rein them in when asked why it was so important for him to fly home on the weekends to see his family at taxpayer expense.
“I think it’s important to get out of Washington,” he said. “The problem with Washington is that you can become very confined. You lose perspective. And throughout my career, I’ve always thought it was important to get a chance to just be just another citizen, because of that, in a very important way, energizes you to be able to come back and make the kind of decisions you have to make.”
According to the NPR report, despite his decades in Washington, Mr. Panetta still sets his watch three hours later — on California time.
Mr. Panetta’s argument about the need to get away from the daily environment and rigors of the job, which he has made before, has struck some active-duty servicemen who have endured repeated deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan as particularly offensive, although they would only say so privately out of fear of reprisal.
The Defense Department at first refused to provide information about Mr. Panetta’s reimbursements, and subsequent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for receipts of the reimbursements directed to the Air Force, the Treasury Department and the Pentagon were rerouted and repeatedly delayed.
In April of last year, amid fallout over a lavish General Services Administration conference that cost top officials at the agency their jobs, Mr. Panetta’s office told the Associated Press he had paid $17,000 for the cost of 27 trips back to California — an average of $629 per trip. But that report did not cite receipts and the office failed to respond to The Washington Times’ request for copies of the reimbursements.
“Secretary Panetta has complied fully with the law and US government policy, which requires him to have access to secure communications at all times,” said Panetta spokesman George Little. “No one wants the secretary of defense making classified, and sometimes life-and-death decisions, from the middle seat on a crowded commercial jet.”
In August of last year, the secretary of defense’s FOIA office sent a formal response to The Washington Times’ request for copies of the reimbursement receipts for the trips, noting that it would be unable to meet the disclosure law’s 20-day statutory time period to respond “as there are unusual circumstances which impact on our ability to quickly process your request.”
Among the “unusual circumstances” the office cited was “the need to search for and collect records from a facility geographically separated from this office,” as well as “the potential volume of records responsive to your request” and “the need for consultation with one or more other agencies or [Department of Defense] components having a substantial interest in either the determination of the subject matter or the records.”
For these reasons, the FOIA office said, the request was placed in “our complex processing queue” and would be worked on in the order it was received, behind 1,240 other open requests.
On Monday, the officer handling the request said the search for the records was ongoing and he hoped “to establish a more definitive timeline within the next couple of weeks” — long after Mr. Panetta will leave the Pentagon for California permanently.
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