Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Monday that he regretted that his frequent flights home to California on a military jet have cost taxpayers more than $800,000 since July. He gave no indication, however, that he would end the weekend commutes, for which he is required to take a military aircraft.
"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," said Panetta, who maintains a residence with his wife, Sylvia, on their walnut farm in Carmel Valley, Calif.
Flying home wasn't an issue for Panetta when he served in Congress from 1977 to 1993 and built a reputation as a deficit hawk. He took commercial flights and paid the bill himself. He followed a similar routine when he served as budget director and White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.
Since becoming defense secretary in July, however, his travels have attracted more attention, in part because Pentagon leaders say they are adjusting to a new era of austerity.
Under government rules established by then-President George W. Bush, the defense secretary is required to fly on military aircraft, which are outfitted with secure communications links to the White House and Pentagon.
Under the same rules, Panetta must reimburse the government for what it would cost for a round-trip commercial flight -- usually a fraction of the expense for operating a military plane.
The Associated Press reported that Panetta had reimbursed the government about $17,000 for 27 personal trips since becoming Pentagon chief. The expense of operating Panetta's military aircraft totaled about $860,000 for those trips.
Panetta told reporters that he's open to "alternatives ... 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."
At a joint news conference, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, volunteered that the defense secretary was hardly slacking off back home.
"Let me help the boss here," Dempsey said. "He doesn't get much rest in California, based on the number of times I know that I'm in contact with him."