Montana Sen. Max Baucus' live-in girlfriend had eyed the state's U.S. attorney post for years before he nominated her for the job, her former colleagues said.
Melodee Hanes, 53, the Democratic senator's former state director, was described by colleagues as a skilled trial attorney qualified for the federal prosecutor's job. She withdrew her nomination in March.
Baucus, 67, is chairman of the Senate's influential finance committee and a leading voice in Democratic calls for health care reform. The mingling of his personal and professional lives has prompted Republican calls for an ethics investigation.
In Montana, Yellowstone County Attorney Dennis Paxinos described Hanes as an accomplished criminal prosecutor. Being named U.S. attorney "was the career path she was working on" since at least 2002, said Paxinos, a Republican and Hanes' former boss.
That year Hanes left her deputy county attorney job to work on Baucus' re-election campaign. The move into politics was based on the assumption that it could lead to the federal prosecutor's job, according to Paxinos.
"I don't think it was ever her intent to fall in love with a senator," he said.
When Hanes put in her name for U.S. attorney — soon after President Obama was elected last November — John Sarcone, county attorney in Polk County, Iowa, said he submitted a letter of recommendation for her. Hanes, who gravitated to child abuse cases over her two decades in private practice and as a prosecutor, had worked in Sarcone's office from 1986 to 1998.
"She was out to do justice and she did a good job," Sarcone said.
Hanes divorced Thomas Bennett, a Billings pathologist, after a 12-year marriage in December 2008, according to court records. She left Baucus' office in June to take a top position within the Justice Department in Washington.
Bennett said in an interview that he had "misgivings, mostly as a private citizen" about his ex-wife's nomination for federal prosecutor given her close personal ties to Baucus.
But when asked if the relationship with Baucus had played a role in the end of his own marriage, Bennett replied, "Melodee and I had a pretty amicable divorce."
Baucus divorced his second wife, Wanda, in April after 25 years. Both have described the split as amicable.
The senator's office revealed the relationship with Hanes Friday, in the face of questions from a Washington, D.C.-based Web site.
Baucus said that initially he did not want the relationship to disqualify Hanes for the U.S. attorney job. However, the two later made the mutual decision that Hanes should withdraw, said Baucus spokesman Ty Matsdorf.
Two other names also had been submitted to the White House for consideration, including Helena attorney Michael Cotter, who was eventually nominated by President Barack Obama. Senate confirmation is pending.
Dana Christensen, a Montana attorney asked by the senator to vet candidates, said Monday he was unaware of the relationship with Hanes and felt no pressure to pick her from among the six original applicants.
Republicans have pounced on Baucus' revelation. But on his home turf, the furor may prove brief, said James Lopach, a political scientist from the University of Montana. While the relationship with Hanes "raises eyebrows," Lopach said Baucus' quick response worked in his favor.
Melanie Sloan, executive director for the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, agreed any outrage over the Hanes affair may be short-lived. But she added it underscored broader concerns over the nominating process.
"I always go back to Strom Thurmond's 28-year-old son, who became U.S. attorney with no qualifications whatsoever," she said. "I don't know how to make a distinction between Strom Thurmond's son and Max Baucus' girlfriend."
Republicans are not ready to let the matter slide. Montana Republican Party Chairman Will Deschamps insisted the issue was "gathering more and more steam."
"Ethics and morality still count," he said.
At a Monday briefing, any suggestion of ties to the White House — where former Baucus staffer Jim Messina serves as deputy chief of staff — were rejected by Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. He said nobody there knew of the relationship beforehand.
"When I say nobody was involved in it, I don't mean 'everybody but people that know Senator Baucus.' I mean nobody," Gibbs said.