Baucus stands by nomination of girlfriend

GOP calls for ethics investigation
2009-12-04T23:30:00Z Baucus stands by nomination of girlfriendThe Associated Press The Associated Press
December 04, 2009 11:30 pm  • 

WASHINGTON - Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus defended recommending his girlfriend for appointment as Montana's U.S. attorney, saying Saturday that his one-time staff member and the former state prosecutor is "highly qualified" but eventually withdrew her nomination.

Baucus said that he began dating former state office director Melodee Hanes after they were both separated from their spouses. The Montana Democrat said they did not have an affair, but began dating while she worked for him.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele called Saturday for a Senate Ethics Committee investigation of Baucus' actions. Steele said the panel should determine "why Senator Baucus put his personal needs above those of the people of Montana."

Baucus, who is helping lead Democratic efforts to expand health care, recommended Hanes for the federal prosecutor job in February. The senator said he appointed an independent, third-party reviewer and established "an open and fair process" that resulted in her name and two others being sent, unranked, to the White House for consideration.

Baucus said he did not know whether the reviewer - who is a longtime campaign donor to Baucus - knew about the senator's relationship with Hanes.

The reviewer is Dana Christensen, a Montana lawyer who contributed $3,400 to Baucus' political campaigns from 1989 to 2002. Christensen's role as reviewer was disclosed Saturday night by Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf. A phone message left at Christensen's law office was not immediately returned.

In a statement issued by his office Saturday, Baucus said that "as we grew closer and things progressed, we knew it was time to begin the process of Mel transitioning out of my Senate office."

He said he recommended Hanes to become Montana's U.S. attorney while they were dating because she is a highly qualified prosecutor who tried more than 100 jury trials and is widely regarded as an expert in child abuse prosecution.

"Mel would have been an excellent U.S. attorney for Montana," said Baucus, 67. "I, for one, did not want her relationship with me to disqualify her from applying for the position."

Baucus' office released a resume for Hanes, which listed her only federal court experience as handling personal injury and employment discrimination cases from 1982 to 1986 as a partner in a private Iowa law firm. All of Hanes' experience as a prosecutor came in state court, mostly in child abuse cases in Iowa and Montana, according to the resume.

Hanes, 53, received prosecutor's training in 1994 at the FBI's National Law Institute in Quantico, Va., the resume states.

Asked by reporters whether there should be an ethics investigation into the matter, Baucus said, "I can't understand why.

"Everything is straight, on the up and up," Baucus added.

Hanes withdrew in March, saying she did so because she received other opportunities she couldn't pass up. Hanes was hired in June as a top official in the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

"We thought it made sense for her to withdraw her name from consideration," Baucus told reporters Saturday. "She also wanted to come back to Washington" to live with Baucus, which she now does.

"Frankly we didn't want to live apart," Baucus said.

Hanes received her Justice job after applying "independently," Baucus said. "Not surprisingly to anyone who's looked at her resume, (Hanes) got the DOJ job on her merit," he said.

Baucus' office released details of his relationship with Hanes late Friday night in response to questions from Mainjustice.com, a news Web site covering the Justice Department that first reported the circumstances of Hanes' nomination.

Baucus has played a major role in managing the Democrats' health care overhaul efforts. He led Senate debate Saturday on the health bill, receiving a nod of support from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

"Max is a good friend, an outstanding senator and he has my full support," Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement released by his spokesman.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska said she didn't think the issue would affect Baucus' leadership in the health care debate. "I don't think it's going to distract from the substance of the debate," she said.

Baucus and his ex-wife Wanda announced last April that they planned to divorce after 25 years of marriage, his second. In a joint statement, they said they had "parted ways amicably and with mutual respect."

Hanes started working for Baucus in 2002 and was his state director before leaving his office for the Justice Department position.

President Barack Obama eventually nominated Helena attorney Michael Cotter for the U.S. attorney post, which supervises prosecutors of all federal crimes committed in Montana and the state's seven Indian reservations. Cotter is awaiting Senate confirmation.

Thomas Towe, a Billings lawyer and former state lawmaker, said Hanes is highly regarded in the state's legal circles. Many lawyers in the state considered her to be a shoo-in for U.S. attorney, he said.

Towe, a Democrat, said both Hanes and Baucus had acted honorably in acknowledging their relationship and withdrawing her name. "I think it hurt her careerwise. It would have been a good career move for her to be U.S. attorney," he said.

 


Update 7 a.m. Dec. 5

By Associated Press and Gazette State Bureau

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus was romantically involved with a former staffer when he recommended her earlier this year to become the next U.S. attorney for Montana, a spokesman said.

The Montana Democrat and his former state director Melodee Hanes began their relationship in the summer of 2008 after Baucus separated from his wife, Ty Matsdorf said in a statement Friday night, confirming a report in Roll Call.

Baucus nominated Hanes for the U.S. attorney post in March. But she later withdrew, saying she had been presented with other opportunities she couldn't pass up.

The Senate leader who's been a major proponent of Democratic health care legislation had submitted six names to a third-party reviewer, who whittled those to Hanes and two others, Mike Cotter and Mike Wheat. Matsdorf said the senator sent the three names to the White House with no ranking to select a nominee. President Barack Obama named Cotter for the top federal prosecutor's job last month. Cotter, who is awaiting confirmation, will supervise prosecutors of all federal crimes committed in Montana and the state's seven Indian reservations.

Roll Call, citing an anonymous source, said Baucus and Hanes began their relationship in the summer of 2008, nearly a year before the senator and his wife, Wanda, got a divorce in April 2009. The newspaper said Baucus and his wife had separated in March 2008 and lived apart when he began dating Hanes.

Hanes pulled her name from consideration for the U.S. attorney job to move to Washington, the newspaper said. She works in the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention as a counselor to the administrator.

Roll Call said Hanes, who also is divorced, now lives with Baucus in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Matsdorf said Baucus' relationship with his girlfriend had nothing to do with his decision to nominate her.

"Senator Baucus recommended each of the three candidates based solely on qualifications, and merit, knowing whichever one the White House selected would serve Montana well," Matsdorf said.

The spokesman said Baucus and Hanes decided during the nomination process that she should withdraw her name because the couple wanted to live together in Washington.

Matsdorf declined to say why the senator was just now disclosing the circumstances surrounding the nomination.

Baucus and his ex-wife Wanda announced last April that they planned to divorce after 25 years of marriage, his second. In a joint statement, they said they had "parted ways amicably and with mutual respect." Baucus previously was married to Ann Geracimos before marrying Wanda Baucus.

Main Justice, the Web site that broke the story, had this comment from Hanes' ex-husband, Thomas Bennett of Billings: "She was recommended for the position because of a very close and personal relationship with Max Baucus, and she withdrew because of a very close and personal relationship with Max Baucus."

Roll Call said Hanes worked as the regional finance director for Baucus' 2002 re-election campaign. From 2003 to 2005, she served as field director and counsel to his office. Hanes was Baucus' state director and counsel from 2005 until this spring.

The newspaper said Hanes previously was a deputy county attorney in Yellowstone County and mainly prosecuted felony sexual assault and child abuse cases.

"Mel is supremely qualified and she got to her current position based solely on her merit," Matsdorf said.

Word of Hanes' nomination follows other recent disclosures of romantic liaisons by political leaders, including South Caro-lina Gov. Mark Sanford, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and two-time Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards.

Sanford faces a possible impeachment following his affair with a woman in Argentina. Ensign, who has acknowledged in June to having an affair with a former member of his campaign staff, has made it clear he intends to serve out his second term. Edwards' political career was damaged when he acknowledged last year he had an affair with a videographer in 2006. The ad-mission came just months after Edwards dropped his second presidential bid.

Baucus was elected to the Montana House in 1973 and to the U.S. House in 1974 and 1976. He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1978 at age 36, and his current term runs until 2014.

The senator has played increasingly visible roles in Congress, sometimes willing to buck his Democratic Party on certain is-sues. He seems to take the position that the state that sent him to the Senate for five terms is fundamentally conservative and its voters want someone willing to vote outside the party line.

Most recently Baucus has been at the center of an effort to move sweeping health care legislation through the Senate with a bill aimed at meeting Obama's goal of overhauling the nation's health care system to cover 48 million uninsured Americans.

On Friday, Baucus went against his party and backed a Republican effort to eliminate a long-term care insurance program to help seniors and the disabled. Republicans argued that the new plan would be a drain on the federal budget.

The Democrat has also been in the middle of other congressional battles: He played a key role in 2003 legislation adding a prescription-drug benefit to the Medicare program and enactment of President George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001.


Initial report:

HELENA - Sen. Max Baucus' office confirmed late Friday that the Montana Democrat was romantically involved with his state director, Melodee Hanes, when he nominated her for Montana's U.S. attorney, Roll Call is reporting.

Hanes withdrew her name from consideration earlier this year.

Baucus submitted her name in March along with two others, Mike Cotter and Mike Wheat, to the White House for the top federal prosecutor’s job in Montana. President Barack Obama named Cotter to the job last month.

Roll Call, citing an anonymous source, said Baucus and Hanes began their relationship in the summer of 2008, nearly a year before the senator and his wife, Wanda, got a divorce in April 2009. The newspaper said Baucus and his wife had separated in March 2008 and lived apart when he began dating Hanes.

Hanes pulled her name from consideration for the U.S. attorney job to move to Washington, the newspaper said. She works in the U.S. Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention as a counselor to the administrator.

Roll Call said Hanes, who also is divorced, now lives with Baucus in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf issued a statement saying the Baucus-Hanes relationship wasn’t the cause of the divorce, nor did Baucus arrange for her job at the Justice Department.

“In no way was their relationship the cause of their respective divorces,” Matsdorf said. “When Sen. Baucus and Melodee Hanes, his former state director, realized that their relationship was developing beyond a purely professional nature, Melodee began the process of resigning her Senate employment.”

After she withdrew from consideration for the U.S. attorney post, Hanes independently applied for the Justice Department job, Matsdorf said.

“Having extensive experience and qualifications in the field, Ms. Hanes was awarded the position based solely on her merit,” he said. “Since then she has excelled in her role.”

Baucus previously was married to Ann Geracimos before marrying Wanda Baucus.

MainJustice, the Web site that broke the story, had this comment from Hanes’ ex-husband, Thomas Bennett of Billings: “She was recommended for the position because of a very close and personal relationship with Max Baucus, and she withdrew because of a very close and personal relationship with Max Baucus.”

Roll Call said Hanes worked as the regional finance director for Baucus’ 2002 re-election campaign. From 2003 to 2005, she served as field director and counsel to his office.  Hanes was Baucus’ state director and counsel from 2005 until this spring.

The newspaper said Hanes previously was a deputy county attorney in Yellowstone County and mainly prosecuted felony sexual assault and child abuse cases.

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