WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Monday he regrets the cost to taxpayers for his weekend trips to his California home, but says it's important "just to get your mind straight and your perspective straight."
Panetta said he'd try to find some savings, with each round trip costing approximately $32,000.
"I regret that it does, you know, that it does add costs that the taxpayer has to pick up," Panetta said during a Pentagon briefing Monday, speaking publicly for the first time about the flight costs. "A taxpayer would have to pick up those costs with any secretary of state or secretary of defense. 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."
The Associated Press earlier this month detailed the costs of the 27 roundtrip flights home Panetta has taken since he became Pentagon chief last July, as well as the amount he has reimbursed the government for the trips.
Panetta is required to travel on military aircraft so he can remain in constant, secure contact with the White House and other top civilian and military leaders. And he routinely works, makes phone calls and, when necessary, travels a short distance for secure video conferences while he is at home at his family's walnut farm.
His bill for the travel is calculated according to reimbursement formulas dictated by longstanding federal policies using what a full-fare coach trip would cost. And the Pentagon says it costs about $3,200 per flight hour to operate the small plane he usually uses for the 10-hour round trip.
He has reimbursed the Treasury about $17,000 for the travel, based on a government formula, or about $630 per round trip.
Based on fuel and other operating expenses for his Air Force plane, the 27 trips have cost the government as much as $860,000.
Typically Panetta flies on an Air Force C-37 – somewhat comparable to a Gulfstream jet – which is the lowest-cost aircraft that can carry the necessary communications equipment.
Panetta did not detail what alternatives he may be looking at in order to find some savings.
Panetta's two predecessors didn't make such frequent, long trips home. Robert Gates spent most weekends in the nation's capital, but traveled occasionally to his family home in Washington state. Donald H. Rumsfeld also lived in the D.C. area, but often spent weekends at his house in St. Michaels on Maryland's Eastern shore.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was sitting next to Panetta during the Pentagon briefing and jumped to the secretary's defense.
"Let me help the boss here, because if I couldn't get a hold of him, we'd have a really different relationship," said Dempsey, adding that Panetta "doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him."
He also noted that Panetta often couples his trip home with visits to military bases. "This is not about him just using that airplane to get himself back and forth to the West Coast every weekend."
On nine occasions so far, Panetta has scheduled domestic trips to bases and other events on Thursdays and Fridays, allowing him to travel part way across the country for business, then fly the rest of the way to California for the weekend. In those cases he reimburses the government for the difference between the cost of the full trip minus the cost of flying directly to the base or official event location and back to Washington.