Published December 11, 2009
The last person to know that Sen. Max Baucus wanted a divorce may have been his wife of 25 years.
It appears that Wanda Baucus was in the dark even as a member of Baucus' staff -- Melodee Hanes, the woman who is now his live-in girlfriend -- was plotting out the senator's life without a wife.
Hanes, Baucus' former state director, reportedly met at least twice with the Montana Democrat's divorce attorney eight months before the senator and his wife separated.
That revelation, reported by Lee Newspapers on Thursday, adds a twist of intrigue to a story that broke last week when Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, acknowledged to Mainjustice.com that he was in a relationship with Hanes when he nominated her for U.S. attorney.
Baucus has been on the defensive ever since as details have emerged, including a Politico report Friday that Baucus gave Hanes a $14,000 raise last year and took her on a government-funded trip to Asia and the Middle East.
Hanes withdrew her nomination in March and now works at the Justice Department; she and Baucus, both divorced, now live together in Washington.
In the summer of 2007, Hanes met with Baucus' attorney, Ron Waterman, who worked on the senator's April 2009 divorce, according to billing documents obtained by Lee Newspapers.
Wanda Baucus told the newspaper she knew nothing about those discussions in 2007, and she said she and her husband had not discussed divorce at the time.
"Ending a 25-year marriage is a serious undertaking that should be discussed first within the family," she told the newspaper. "There's no justification for the staff being involved in such private matters."
A Baucus spokesman, Ty Matsdorf, told the newspaper that Hanes met with Waterman in her official capacity as a member of Baucus' staff.
"Melodee Hanes' interactions were in her official role as state director and focused on scheduling and logistics, including how a potential separation between Sen. Baucus and (his ex-wife) Wanda could impact the senator's travel and work," Matsdorf said in a written statement.
Baucus has said that their relationship did not become romantic until after his separation.
The latest report underscores how difficult it will be for Baucus to explain his actions as Republicans push for a Senate ethics investigation.
Baucus has defended his decision to nominate Hanes for U.S. attorney, saying she was highly qualified. But Politico.com reported that Baucus also raised her salary by nearly $14,000 in 2008, when she was his state director. And he took her on a trip to Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates.
Baucus' office denied giving Hanes preferential treatment and said "virtually our entire staff" had salary increases at the time, some in line with Hanes'.
The office also said it was appropriate for Hanes to go to Asia and the Middle East with Baucus.