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Where's Panetta? Secretary's California weekends questioned

WASHINGTON – Where’s Panetta? Since Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s first weekend on the job, that is a phrase that has become common in the Pentagon.

The Californian quickly has made it a regular habit to fly home to Monterey on weekends and holidays. Now, The Los Angeles Times looks into why he does it, who’s paying for it.

UPDATED Friday, Sept. 2, 2011, 1:55 P.M.

The eyebrows started raising on day one. Panetta was sworn in on a Friday and immediately he flew home for the three-day Fourth of July weekend. The day after former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ swearing-in ceremony in 2006, he was bound for Baghdad. Panetta left for the war zones just a few days later, but it was enough to get Pentagon staffers murmuring about the distinction.  

Panetta’s aides say he told the White House before he took the job he would do lots of telecommuting, and he's constantly working from home. But the defense secretary is required to be in constant communication with the chain of command, and so he must always fly on government aircraft. His staff has said he is required to reimburse the government for those flights out of his own pocket and will, but it turns out that bill comes up a bit short for the taxpayer.

“On personal trips, like the weekend flights, Panetta is required to reimburse the Treasury for the cost of an equivalent coach fare. The actual cost of flying him is far higher — about $3,200 per flight hour, according to the Defense Department,” wrote Times’ Pentagon reporter David Cloud.

On Friday, Pentagon press secretary George Little, in an email, said, "Secretary Panetta has followed government regulations to the letter, works around the clock all week long, and stays in constant touch with the Department. If someone thinks he's out of touch because he's away from Washington, they're wrong."

It’s not entirely unusual for defense secretaries to fly home with some regularity. And after all, it is summer in Washington, where real news tends to slow to a crawl until Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. But last week as Hurricane Irene tore up the East Coast, the Pentagon began to talk up its disaster readiness, emailing out notices that Panetta was able to give orders from his California home within minutes. Meanwhile, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano was in the office all weekend, assuring the public the federal government was on the job.

On Wednesday, Panetta also was absent at Gen. David Petraeus' retirement ceremony in Washington.  

“The Secretary successfully managed two major events from California,” said one senior defense official on Friday. “He approved DOD support to states affected by Hurricane Irene, and he was heavily involved in dealing with the Chinook helicopter crash in Afghanistan last month. He's been available, too, for last-minute phone calls with the President and his national security team.”

Panetta is on vacation. The story continues, here.

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