Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) did not disclose to the Justice Department anything about his personal relationship with a woman he recommended to be a United States Attorney, according to a Department official involved in the selection of federal prosecutors. Baucus has acknowledged that he recommended his girlfriend, Melodee Hanes, to be the U.S. attorney for Montana, but it has not been previously known whether he or his staff told Justice Department officials about the relationship at the time of his recommendation.
An official involved in the vetting of U.S. attorneys says that Baucus did not—a disclosure that may escalate questions about Baucus’ conduct. Baucus, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, submitted Hanes’ name and that of two other Montana attorneys to be U.S. attorney for his state.
Senators traditionally nominate three people to the White House, which then considers one or all of them for final appointment. That Baucus first recommended Hanes for the job was first reported by the website MainJustice.com.
Hanes herself recommended that her name be withdrawn from consideration, mitigating allegations of favoritism by Baucus. But Baucus' office admitted that the senator and Hanes were already romantically involved, since the summer of 2008, when he recommended her. As the AP reported, Baucus "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." Baucus has said that he and Hanes were separated from their respective spouses at the time the relationship between the two of them began. Now both divorced, Baucus and Hanes live together on Capitol Hill.
Despite this, however, Justice Department officials say they were blindsided when they learned of the relationship between the Senator and the woman he recommended to be U.S. attorney. Officials also say that the Senator’s non-disclosure might have tainted the selection process.
The Obama Justice Department, citing the politicization of the Department during the Bush administration—most notably the firings of nine U.S. attorneys by Bush for political reasons—has vowed to bring integrity back to the selection and hiring of U.S. Attorneys and other political appointees. They have appointed more career prosecutors to be U.S. attorneys than previous administrations. And Obama reappointed one U.S. attorney fired by the Bush administration-- Dan Bogden-- back to his old position as the U.S. attorney for Nevada.
The possibility that they might have appointed a U.S. Attorney that was a senator’s girlfriend could have turned out to be not only a major political embarrassment but also a potential scandal. But Department officials are not likely to criticize Baucus publicly.
And Hanes has since gotten a job with the Justice Department working on juvenile justice issues, working in the Department's Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Prevention (OJJDP.) The OJJDP distributes more than a half billion of federal grants to prevent juvenile delinquency and protect disadvantaged and at-risk youth. The Obama administration is currently reforming the agency after congressional investigations and an internal Justice Department probe found evidence of cronyism and favoritism by the Bush administration in the awarding tens of millions of dollars in grants to political friends of the Bush White House over more highly qualified applicants. The Department was further embarrassed when OJJDP officials refused to testify before Congress, invoking their Fifth Amendment rights. (To read about that scandal, one should click here, here, here, and here.)
A Justice Department spokesman told the New York Times that she obtained the job independently and because she was highly qualified. Tracy Schmaler, the Justice Department spokeswoman, told the Times that Ms. Hanes was hired “because of her decades of experience in the field,” saying she had specialized in the prosecution of child abuse and neglect at the Polk County Attorney’s Office in Des Moines. “She has won awards for her work, been published on the topics of child abuse and fatality, and taught classes in these areas to both law students and Department of Human Services child protection investigators,” Schmaler said.
Meanwhile, the Hill reported in a little noticed story that Hanes accompanied Baucus on two taxpayer-sponsored overseas trips in late 2008 after the two started dating. The paper quoted ethics experts saying that the travel should be probed:
"When you do go on one of these trips, one of the things you're supposed to certify is that you're going on the trip for a legitimate purpose, to do public business," said Meredith McGeehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, noting she would support a probe. She added the senator's trips "certainly [raise] questions about the judgment he has used and his motivations for taking Hanes along, even if otherwise, on every other kind of decision, it would be legitimate." The senator's office, however, was unavailable to comment Saturday evening on the full details of those trips.
In the end, the overseas travel may eclipse the original disclosure that Baucus recommended Hanes to be a U.S. attorney. Update: Baucus not only did not inform the Justice Department of his relationship with Hanes while he was pushing her for U.S. attorney, apparently he kept the White House in the dark as well. Baucus spoke to Politico. The website reported that "Baucus said he didn’t think the White House was aware of the relationship – or his close friend and former chief of staff Jim Messina, who is now the White House’s deputy chief of staff. And he said that he didn’t believe Messina played a role in the process of choosing the attorney."