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U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said Monday he handled his nomination of his girlfriend and former staffer Melodee Hanes for U.S. attorney in Montana “all in an aboveboard way,” but acknowledged he failed to disclose their romantic relationship when he nominated her.

“I pride myself in setting up a very objective process to get the very best people for those federal jobs,” Baucus told Lee Newspapers State Bureau on Monday. “I did the same this time.”

Baucus defended his decision not to tell either Dana Christiansen, the Kalispell lawyer he appointed to initially review the applications, or fellow Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who interviewed the finalists with him, about his relationship with Hanes.

“That was done purposely,” Baucus said. “I didn’t want to bias either one of them.”

“Frankly, my thought was I want the very best, and Melodee has such great qualities,” Baucus added. “Her employment should not be an advantage nor should it disqualify her for me. Let Dana decide.”

It also was revealed by former Missoulian reporter Jodi Rave this weekend that Hanes didn’t withdraw as a candidate for the U.S. attorney job until after Rave asked questions about the nomination and Hanes’ relationship with Baucus.

Rave said on her blog, Buffalo Fire, that she asked Baucus’ office early this year about whether he was having a romantic relationship with Hanes and if he saw any conflict of interest in recommending Hanes for the U.S. attorney job.

The office finally replied in March that Hanes had withdrawn, Rave said.

A national Web site that covers the U.S. Justice Department, www.

mainjustice.com, broke the story on Friday about Baucus’ relationship with Hanes when he nominated her in February for the U.S. attorney position — the highest-ranking federal prosecutor in Montana.

She has since left Baucus’ staff in Montana and joined the U.S. Justice Department in Washington, D.C., where she lives with Baucus.

Mainjustice.com reported Monday that neither the White House nor Justice Department officials involved in the selection process for U.S. attorney knew of Baucus’ relationship with Hanes.

Christiansen said Monday Baucus didn’t tell him about the relationship with Hanes, nor does he believe he should have been informed.

“I don’t think it’s any of my business what the senator’s relationship was,” he said.

Christiansen said Baucus’ office in December gave him the names of six people who applied for the U.S. attorney’s job and asked him to interview them, conduct background investigations and recommend some names to him. He was asked to narrow the list to two or three finalists.

Besides interviewing the applicants, Christiansen said he talked to current and retired Montana judges and former assistant U.S. attorneys and other lawyers he knows in Montana who practice in federal court about the needs for the U.S. attorney in Montana and what they thought of the six applicants.

After an extensive review, Christiansen said he recommended in mid-January, in no order of preference, three finalists to Baucus: Michael Cotter of Helena, former state Sen. Mike Wheat of Bozeman and Hanes.

“I never sensed from him that he had a favorite or that he had made up his mind,” Christiansen said. “I sensed he was sincerely trying to find out as much as he could about them.”

Baucus and Tester jointly interviewed the three finalists, Baucus said. Baucus forwarded, without any order of preference, all three names to President Barack Obama for his consideration.

A Tester spokesman confirmed Monday that Tester wasn’t informed about the Baucus-Hanes relationship during the interview process. Tester issued a statement Monday saying: “Their relationship is a private matter, and I respect their privacy.”

Obama in September nominated Cotter as U.S. attorney for Montana. The Senate has yet to confirm his appointment.

Baucus said at some point Hanes and he decided she ought to withdraw from consideration for the U.S. attorney post, which is based in Montana.

“As Mel and I continued to get closer and closer, we concluded it would be best for all concerned that she withdraw,” he said. “We wanted to be together (in Washington). We didn’t want there to be an appearance of anything (improper).”

Hanes later applied for and was hired for a job in the U.S. Justice Department in Washington as the counselor to the administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Baucus said Hanes was hired for a good job based on her qualifications and that he was not involved in her hiring in any way.

“As it gets closer and closer, all things came together,” Baucus said. “We want to live together. We want to be together.”

Former Missoulian reporter Rave suggested on her blog, Buffalo Fire, on Saturday that her questions about the relationship may have triggered Hanes’ withdrawal from consideration for the U.S. attorney post.

Rave said she began pursuing a story in February about the “beyond-professional” relationship between Baucus and Hanes. She called then-Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser with two questions: Would Baucus confirm he was having a romantic relationship with Hanes, and did the senator see any conflict of interest in recommending his girlfriend for U.S. attorney?

“The story stretched out for weeks before I finally placed a final call to Barrett around March 11, 2009,” Rave wrote. “I said we’re running the story in the next day’s paper. He then sent out a statement via e-mail saying Hanes was NOT a candidate for U.S. attorney.”

Rave’s story did not mention any Baucus relationship with Hanes, instead focusing on the nomination process for U.S. attorney.

Baucus, who was divorced from his wife, Wanda, in April 2009, was asked when he intended to let Montanans know about his relationship with Hanes.

“It’s just natural, let it evolve and people know,” he said. “We’ve been totally open about it. That’s kind of a personal thing, a personal relationship. The point is, we’re open and we’re not hiding anything.”

“Mel and I have a wonderful relationship,” he said. “We’re in a loving relationship. I’ve never been as happy as I am now.”

He went on to say Hanes would have been “a super U.S. attorney,” adding that she had prosecuted more than 100 cases in court, including some capital crimes in which the death penalty could be imposed, been a professor and has been the subject of a book about her pursuit of child-abuse victims in Iowa.

Baucus said he doesn’t foresee any ethics problems arising from his nomination of Hanes as U.S. attorney.

“My judgment is that independent, objective ethics experts think there is no legal or ethical problem,” he said. “Republicans might, but consider the source.”

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