Defense Secretary Leon Panetta flies home to California almost every weekend, racking up costs for the American taxpayer roughly equal to the cost of the General Services Administration's junket to Las Vegas that has Congress fuming mad this week.
The AP reported earlier this month that Panetta, who has been commuting to his northern California home each weekend for decades, has made at least 27 round trips on government airplanes since becoming defense secretary and only reimburses the taxpayer $630 of the $32,000 cost of each trip. He is only legally required to reimburse the government for the commercial coach class fare.
Obama administration officials say Panetta likes to recharge his battery and often makes side trips to military bases while he's out West. Regardless, the optics of the expense don't look good at a time when the United States is in the middle of a fiscal crisis and Congress is searching hard to eliminate waste in government spending.
At Monday's Pentagon press briefing, Panetta was asked about the travel expenses, which now total about $860,000.
"For 40 years that I've been in this town, 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 said, noting that as defense secretary, he is not permitted to fly commercial and must be always reachable.
"I regret that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up. The taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense," he said. "But having said that, I am trying to look at what are the alternatives here that I can look at that might possibly be able to save funds and at the same time be able to fulfill my responsibilities not only to my job, but to my family.
Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey chimed in to insist that Panetta is working even while crisscrossing the country every weekend. "By the way, he doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him," Dempsey said.
Congress has been silent on the Panetta trips, although today marks the second day of hearings on the GSA employee conference in Las Vegas in 2010, which cost the U.S. taxpayer $823,000, according to an inspector general's investigation. At the first day of hearings, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said that the GSA officials were acting as they believed they were "some kind of agency royalty who used taxpayer funds to bankroll their lavish lifestyle."
"They violated one of the most basic tenets of government service. It's not your money," Cummings said.
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