Baucus’s Legal Affairs

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus found himself the center of a scrum of reporters Saturday as the Senate worked through the weekend on health care reform, though not for the usual reasons. The topics did not include the public option, abortion, health care affordability or his hearings on global warming legislation but, rather, his live-in girlfriend and former Montana state director Melodee Hanes. Reports surfaced yesterday that the twice-married Baucus – who, staff say, first got together with Hanes last summer when they were both still married but separated from their respective spouses – had nominated her to be U.S. Attorney from Montana.

Baucus’s staff pushed back hard on the idea that his nomination was a conflict of interest. Baucus and Hanes began dating in the summer of 2008. In December, Hanes’s divorce was finalized and in February of 2009 hers was one of three names he submitted to President Obama after being vetted by a private lawyer, as Baucus has always done with all his nominations to Democratic administrations. But a month later, Baucus told reporters Saturday, they had grown so close that in March Hanes withdrew her name from consideration in order to “avoid the appearance of impropriety” and, Baucus said, because they were ready to take their relationship to the next level. Baucus spends most of his time in Washington and the U.S. Attorney job would’ve kept Hanes in Montana. “That was frankly part of it, we didn’t want to live apart,” Baucus said. “Two thousand miles: that was a big factor, frankly, a big factor.”

In April, Baucus’s divorce was finalized and by May Hanes had quit Baucus’s employ and moved in with Baucus in a Captiol Hill home puchased in June. “Mel and I have a wonderful relationship. We are living together and enjoying spending time with each other and our families. I’m as happy as I’ve ever been,” the chairman said in a statement Saturday. Hanes, 53, applied and got a job at the Justice Department. “As a highly qualified prosecutor who tried more than 100 jury trials and as a former law professor, Mel would’ve been an excellent U.S. Attorney for Montana,” Baucus, 67, said in his statement. “But in the end, we decided it would be best for Mel to withdraw her name from consideration. That also allowed us to live together in Washington, where Mel applied independently with the Department of Justice and, not surprisingly, to anyone who’s looked at her resume, got the DOJ job on her merit.”

The Republican National Committee Saturday put out a press release demanding an investigation in to the episode. The committee, which remained notably mute on Senator John Ensign’s affair with a former staffer and the revelation of potentially criminal pay offs to her husband to keep the quiet, blasted Baucus for using “his Senate office to advance a taxpayer funded appointment for his staff-member girlfriend” and contended the issue “raises a whole host of ethical questions.” Such an investigation, though, is unlikely. “Max is a good friend and an outstanding senator and he has my full support,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a statement.