The controversy over Max Baucus’ relationship with his staffer and her nomination for a US Attorney slot deepens today, with a Politico report that strongly suggests that Baucus used public money to favor Melodee Hanes.  As their relationship turned personal in 2008, Baucus gave her a $14,000 salary increase.  The story about Baucus’ withdrawal of Hanes’ nomination also got challenged:

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boss and employee that Baucus tried to keep quiet and also contradicting his explanation for why Hanes’s nomination was withdrawn.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.

This demonstrates why office romances are almost always a terrible idea, especially between executives and their staffers, even when intentions are honorable.  As Newsweek’s Kate Dailey wrote earlier this week, Hanes had a record of serious accomplishment before going to work for Baucus.  She had worked as a prosecutor for years, although not without controversy, and had a bright future even before joining Baucus’ team.

However, Dailey’s contention that Hanes is “not a bimbo” depends on the definition one uses.  People can be forgiven for assuming that someone who sleeps with the boss and then gets a $14,000 per year raise and a nomination for an important political appointment is indeed a “bimbo” who uses horizontal qualifications to move ahead.  Even if that employee has worked hard (non-horizontally) for both of those, the assumption will be that the personal relationship and the increased opportunities are not just coincidental. And it’s almost certain that they would be right to make that assumption.

Baucus’ staff were certainly aware of the relationship.  How else did the Missoulian hear about it?  If nothing else, Hanes’ inclusion on foreign-policy trips (at taxpayer expense) when her responsibilities had nothing to do with foreign policy would have provided people close to the situation with obvious conclusions.  Such dynamics distort working relationships, create jealousies and resentments, and handicap the capabilities of the team, regardless of whether it’s in the public or private sector, which is why most private-sector companies actively discourage such relationships.

The ethics of this situation go beyond the personal, although Baucus’ personal ethics here are unimpressive, to say the least.  Were taxpayer funds used by Baucus to woo Hanes and to keep her connected to him?  Should Hanes have been included on foreign-policy junkets and paid per diems on taxpayer money?  Mostly, how did Hanes get her current position at the DoJ, given all we have discovered about Baucus’ efforts on her behalf earlier, and is this a patronage job meant to feather their bed and distance Baucus from further ethics probes?