Sen. Baucus says he was involved romantically with his nominee for Mont. post

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 6, 2009

Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged Saturday that he was involved in a romantic relationship with a senior staff member at the same time he recommended her to be U.S. attorney for Montana.

The relationship between Baucus, 67, and Melodee Hanes, 53, began in summer 2008, when Hanes was the senator's state director, and was ongoing earlier this year when Baucus nominated her and two others as potential U.S. attorney candidates, his office said.

Baucus said in a statement that the recommendation was part of "an open and fair process" and that Hanes, now a senior Justice Department official, was qualified for the job because of her experience as a trial prosecutor and child-abuse expert. The couple now live together in the senator's home in Capitol Hill.

"Mel and I have a wonderful relationship," Baucus said. "We are living together and enjoying spending time with each other and our families. I'm as happy as I've ever been."

Hanes's name was submitted to the White House in March, but she pulled out of consideration, citing other opportunities. She was hired in June for a political appointment as a counselor in the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, officials said. The relationship was first reported late Friday by Main Justice, a legal news Web site.

Baucus's personal relationship with a paid employee -- and his recommendation that she be appointed his state's top law enforcement official -- could raise political problems for him while he is playing a crucial role in trying to push through Democratic health-care reform legislation in Congress.

GOP lawmakers remained mum on Saturday, but Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said the case "raises a whole host of ethical questions" and should be referred to the Senate ethics committee. "They should hold a hearing to identify who was involved in this process, what they knew and when they knew it, and why Senator Baucus put his personal needs above those of the people of Montana," Steele said.

The Senate ethics panel is already investigating allegations of improper conduct by Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who had an affair with a senior aide's wife and then allegedly helped the husband get a lobbying job. Ensign has admitted having an extramarital affair but has denied legal wrongdoing.

Lawmakers in Washington have a long tradition of finding jobs for relatives and friends, including for U.S. attorney positions. In 2001, then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) recommended his 28-year-old son to be U.S. attorney for South Carolina. This year, the Senate confirmed Brendan Johnson, the son of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), to be U.S. attorney for South Dakota, although the elder Johnson said he took no part in the recommendation process.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the Baucus episode represents "very bad judgment," but is also typical for a job that is often filled by cronies or relatives of politicians.

"You become U.S. attorney by having the right political connections, and sometimes that's by having a personal relationship with the senator," Sloan said. "In the end, members are not supposed to be using their positions for the benefit of their friends or family, but they do it all the time."

Baucus and his second wife of 25 years, Wanda, announced their divorce in April, saying in a statement that they had "parted ways amicably and with mutual respect." The couple had been estranged for some time, and press reports noted that Baucus had not included his wife on holiday cards or accompanied her to public events since at least the middle of 2008.

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