Also attending the dinner will be a table of guests sponsored by Lockheed Martin, the nation’s largest defense contractor, which is donating $8,000 to the Panetta Institute to help sponsor the evening. Also contributing cash for the fundraising dinner are several corporations and boards for which Leon Panetta worked as a paid director before he joined the Obama administration.
In interviews, Sylvia Panetta and Pentagon officials said all of the arrangements are in compliance with federal ethics rules. They said the couple has consulted with government lawyers and other officials to ensure that neither they nor the institute trigger any conflicts of interest.
The Panetta Institute’s devotion to honoring lawmakers and journalists with whom the Pentagon chief now works highlights the cozy and mutually beneficial relationships that influence how Washington operates.
In addition to Gates, CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer and former Federal Reserve vice chairman Alice Rivlin will receive the Panetta Institute’s annual Jefferson-Lincoln Awards for public service Saturday. Rivlin served as Panetta’s deputy when he ran the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.
In a phone interview, Sylvia Panetta, who serves as the unpaid chairman and director of the nonpartisan institute, said the awards are designed to honor those in government and journalism.
She acknowledged many have worked with her husband. “Leon has known most of these people over the years,” she said. “It’s also people we admire and respect. That we know them is a plus.”
Pentagon Press Secretary George Little said that Leon Panetta had “absolutely no role whatsoever in selecting this year’s honorees” and that the secretary would attend the fundraising dinner not in an official capacity but as Sylvia Panetta’s husband.
Little said Leon Panetta is prohibited from making any decisions affecting the institute or even taking a passive role in fundraising. In June, he added, Panetta voluntarily signed an ethics clause under which the defense secretary promised that his wife would not communicate directly with the Pentagon on behalf of the institute or its clients.
“The secretary has adhered strictly to federal law and to government ethics regulations with respect to his past affiliation with the Panetta Institute,” Little said. “In some cases, he has imposed stricter obligations on himself than the law would require.”