Sen. Max Baucus, Melodee Hanes and the likely reason girlfriend was withdrawn as next state prosecutor

It’s been a short and incredulous journey to see a national news story play out on the big TV networks and the New York Times. This is the story of Montana Sen. Max Baucus-D, Mont., and his nomination of his girlfriend to be the states top prosecutor. Here’s an excerpt from the NYT:

In response to news media inquiries, Mr. Baucus, a Democrat and the chairman of the Finance Committee, said that he had already begun a relationship with the woman, Melodee Hanes, the director of his state operations, in February when he submitted her name along with two others as candidates to serve as United States attorney for the state.

When the relationship intensified, Mr. Baucus said, he and Ms. Hanes agreed jointly in March that she would withdraw from consideration, and another person was eventually nominated. Ms. Hanes, 53, an experienced prosecutor, then took a job at the Justice Department. She and Mr. Baucus, both divorced, now live together.

“It just made sense for her not to be a candidate because we were close,” Mr. Baucus, 67, said Saturday as he met with reporters just outside the Senate chamber. He said Ms. Hanes began looking for a new position after they agreed she should no longer work in the Senate office because of their relationship.

News of the job recommendation, first disclosed Friday by the Web site, came as the senator is squarely in the public eye as one of the chief proponents of the health care legislation that kept the Senate in session over the weekend. The relationship between Mr. Baucus and Ms. Hanes is just the latest in a string of incidents that has focused attention on the personal lives of senators.

As a reporter who covered the story here in Montana for Lee Enterprises, I have a different perspective about why Hanes and Baucus jointly agreed to withdraw her name. I talked to Hanes and to Baucus spokesman about the relationship the senator had with Hanes, his state director. I had also talked with the Hanes’ husband. I had also interviewed all the candidates — and then some — about the U.S. attorney selection process in Montana. It was clear as day that Baucus had nominated her. I called the senator’s spokesman and told him we were going to finally print the story in the Missoulian, after a few delays. Within what seemed like minutes, K Barrett Kaiser sent an email to the newsroom and said that Hanes “was NOT” a candidate. We ran  the news story without any mention of the affair. At the time, Baucus would not admit he had indeed nominated her. But, after a process of elimination, it was obvious that he did. Read an excerpt of the story.

So, it seems safe to say that her name was not withdrawn because the relationship had intensified; it was arguably withdrawn because the relationship was not a big secret here in Montana. 

I left Lee Enterprises in May to work on a book about the Interior Department’s management of Indian trust funds. (Update:  On Dec. 8, 2009, the federal government announced it settled the Cobell Indian trust fund case for $3.4 billion).

Jodi Rave