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Panetta paid Treasury $17,000 for trips home: Pentagon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has spent about $17,000 to reimburse the Treasury for frequent travel to his California home, trips that cost the government some $860,000 because he is required to fly in military jets, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

Panetta has paid about $630 per roundtrip flight to his northern California home as required by longstanding government guidelines that set reimbursement rates at the price of a full-fare coach trip.

The plane Panetta generally takes costs about $3,200 a flight hour to operate, or about $32,000 for the 10-hour roundtrip flight, the Pentagon said.

The cost of Panetta's travel is a sensitive issue because he is overseeing $487 billion in cuts to the defense budget over the next decade as required by a law passed by Congress last year that is aimed at controlling the federal budget deficit.

While Panetta's travel is a tiny fraction of the Defense Department's half-trillion budget, the expense comes at a time when some sectors of the Pentagon are facing cuts and some retired veterans are being asked to contribute more to the cost of their healthcare.

"No one understands the budget pressures on the Pentagon better than Secretary Panetta, who is responsible for identifying nearly $1 billion per week in defense cuts — or roughly $140 million per day — over the next 10 years," Pentagon press secretary George Little said.

Officials noted that Panetta is required to travel by military aircraft for purposes of security and to have access to secure communications, a practice instituted by the George W. Bush administration in 2001.

"No one wants the secretary of defense making decisions on classified military operations from the middle seat on a crowded JetBlue flight," a senior defense official said.

"The secretary asked for guidance on the use of government aircraft from the DoD (Department of Defense) general counsel soon after taking office. He has followed that guidance to the letter," the official said.

Since taking office last year, Panetta has made 27 trips to California, generally around the weekend. That's more frequently than the travel home by his predecessors, Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld.

"He returns to California because that's where his family lives. It is his home," Little said, adding that spending time away from Washington "helps him focus on the job and recharge."

Panetta also works while in California or in flight.

(Reporting By David Alexander; Editing by Paul Simao)