At a black-tie dinner Saturday, former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates will receive an award from an outfit especially sympathetic to the rigors of his old job: the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, an academic center co-founded by Gates’s successor at the Pentagon, Leon E. Panetta.
Panetta, who took over from Gates in July, has recused himself from direct involvement in the Monterey, Calif.-based institute since 2009, when he returned to government service to lead the CIA. But Panetta is expected to attend the dinner with his wife, Sylvia, who has run the nonprofit institute in his absence.
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.”
Others honored by the institute since Panetta joined the Obama administration include New York Times columnist David Brooks and television journalists Tom Brokaw and Jim Lehrer.
Before 2009, the institute frequently honored lawmakers, including Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), but it has not given an award to an elected official since then. David Broder, the late political reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, was honored in 2007.
Sylvia Panetta said the institute awards honorees “a small amount of money” but declined to say how much. “It’s a little way of saying thank you.”
She said the institute has a general policy of not accepting donations from defense contractors. She said she made an exception for Lockheed Martin because it has contributed financially to the institute for several years.
“These folks have been supporters of ours before Leon became secretary of defense,” she said. “Do you really think they would give us money if they didn’t think we were doing a good job? They like what we’re doing.”
She said other defense contractors have been blocked from donating, but she would not identify them. She declined to release a complete list of donors to the institute but did disclose the 43 corporate and individual sponsors who are contributing at least $5,000 to this year’s dinner.
Lockheed has a history of donating to causes favored by influential lawmakers and government officials, said William D. Hartung, analyst at the Center for International Policy and author of a book about the company.
He said Lockheed gave money to an orchestra in Johnstown, Pa., that was a charity championed by the wife of the late Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a leading lawmaker on military issues. Lockhhed also supported the Trent Lott Leadership Institute at the University of Mississippi, named after the former Republican Senate leader.
“Having the nation’s top defense contractor giving money to an institute named after the sitting secretary of defense doesn’t pass the smell test,” Hartung said.
Spokespersons for Lockheed did not respond to e-mailed requests for comment.
Panetta, a native of the Monterey area, was elected to Congress in 1976 and served eight terms. He then served as President Clinton’s budget director and chief of staff before retiring in 1997, when he co-founded the Panetta Institute with his wife.
The institute, based on the campus of California State University at Monterey Bay, offers a master’s degree program in public policy and sponsors fellowships and internships.