|Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, gave a nearly $14,000 pay raise to a female staffer in 2008, at the time he was becoming romantically involved with her, and later that year took her on a taxpayer-funded trip to Southeast Asia and the Middle East, though foreign policy was not her specialty.
Late last Friday, Baucus acknowledged his relationship with Melodee Hanes, whom he nominated for the job of U.S. attorney in Montana, after it was first reported on the website MainJustice.com. But he said that Hanes withdrew from consideration for the job when the relationship became more serious. The next day, he dismissed calls for an ethics investigation, saying, “I went out of my way to be up and up.”
Since his announcement, more details of the relationship have emerged, raising questions about a workplace romance between a boss and employee that Baucus tried to keep quiet and also contradicting his explanation for why Hanes’s nomination was withdrawn.
Jodi Ravi, a former reporter for the Missoulian revealed over the weekend that the paper informed Baucus in March that it was poised to publish a story about Hanes’s relationship with the senator and the fact that he had nominated her for the U.S. attorney job.
The next day, Hanes withdrew from consideration. According to the Missoulian, Baucus’s office never acknowledged a relationship between the two, and the paper did not run a story.
Baucus’s office said yesterday that while Baucus was aware of Ravi’s questions, “there were a number of factors that went into Ms. Hanes’s decision to withdraw” from consideration for the U.S. attorney post, including that the couple’s relationship was “changing.”
“These discussions took place before, though around the same time as, the reporter’s inquiry,” Baucus’ office said in a statement. “This, coupled with the fact that they wanted to live together in Washington, led to her withdrawal.
Baucus separated from his now-ex-wife, Wanda, in March 2008 and moved out of their home. Hanes separated from her husband in April 2008 and moved out in early June. Hanes was divorced from her husband last December, and Baucus was divorced in April 2009. They are now living together on Capitol Hill and began dating in the summer of 2008. Hanes and other staff received their raises in this time period, according to public documents that show payroll breakdowns in six-month increments.
Baucus insists that Hanes was well-qualified for the prosecutor position, and his office released a lengthy résumé detailing her expertise as a prosecutor and in private practice.
Unlike many private corporations, there are no congressional rules barring a lawmaker from having a romantic liaison with an employee. In several cases, members have married staffers. For instance, Rep. Steve LaTourette (R-Ohio) became involved with his wife when she was still his chief of staff. Former Rep. David Bonior (D-Mich.) first hired his wife, Judy, as a staffer and later married her.
Former Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) became involved with a House staffer when he was speaker of the House. He later divorced his second wife and married the staffer.
Baucus himself was sued by his former chief of staff, Christine Niedermeyer, after he fired her, but the case was thrown out on a technicality. She claimed the senator made unwanted sexual advances, but Baucus vehemently denied the allegation.
Hanes, who worked on Baucus’s staff as his state director and senior counsel, accompanied him on a taxpayer-funded congressional delegation in late 2008 with other members of the senator’s staff, a trip first reported by The Hill.
The Baucus group traveled to Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $14,000 per person. It was the only overseas trip taken by Hanes during her nearly six years on Baucus’s payroll. Baucus’s office said the trip resulted in increased collaboration between universities in Montana and Vietnam.
Baucus’s office said it was appropriate for Hanes to accompany the senator and other aides to the Montana Democrat during a late 2008 trip to Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates, even though the couple had begun a romantic relationship. The office said previous state directors had also gone on official overseas trips.
Baucus’s office also denies giving Hanes any preferential treatment while she was a paid member of his Senate staff. A Baucus spokesman downplayed the salary hike Hanes received, saying it was in line with what other aides to the senator received during the same period.
Around the time when her relationship with Baucus reportedly “intensified” in the summer of 2008, Hanes’s salary jumped $13,687, according to public documents covering the April 1-Sept. 30, 2008, period, to among the highest on the senator’s payroll.
In a statement to POLITICO, Baucus’s office argued that “virtually our entire staff” saw their salaries rise during the period, saying the raise was on a par with the legislative director’s and less than the chief of staff’s.
“In fact, during that period, Ms. Hanes’s salary increased by the exact same amount as our legislative director and less than our chief of staff,” said a statement from a Baucus spokesman.
Hanes’s salary did return to a lower level in the following six-month period, Senate records show. According to Baucus’s office, she left the staff in May and joined the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, where she currently works as acting deputy administrator for policy.