OJJDP Deputy’s Relationship with Sen. Baucus Raises Questions

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JJ onlookers were hoping that the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) would be in the news because the president nominated someone to run it. Instead, the office finds itself on the fringe of a situation involving Sen. Max Baucus (D-Montana), who is front and center in the health care reform debate as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Baucus’ girlfriend and former staffer, Melodee Hanes, has been the acting deputy administrator of policy at OJJDP. But before she got that job, it turns out, Baucus recommended her and two others to the Obama administration to serve as U.S. attorney for Montana, and did not disclose at the time that he was in a romantic relationship with Hanes.

Hanes withdrew as a finalist for that job so that she could live with Baucus in Washington, according to a statement sent to the website Main Justice by Baucus spokesperson Ty Matsdorf. Hanes’ ex-husband, Thomas Bennett, had other thoughts for Main Justice.

In her role at OJJDP, Hanes oversees a staff of 10 who work on policy development and  communications. That staff is responsible for providing legal and policy advice to the administrator and for setting the direction of research, technical training and assistance. 

“She was recommended for the position because of a very close and personal relationship with Max Baucus and she withdrew because of a very close and personal relationship with Max Baucus,” Bennett told the website.

Baucus insists that he did not promote her for the job at OJJDP. “Mel applied independently with the Department of Justice, and, not surprisingly to anyone who’s looked at her resume, got the DOJ job on her merit,” he said in a statement issued last week.

Hanes’ resume seems pretty light for a U.S. attorney job, but it does reveal a familiarity with children’s issues. Before joining Baucus’ staff in 2002, she prosecuted sexual assault and child abuse cases in Yellowstone County, Mont., and before that she trained child protection investigators for the Iowa Department of Human Services.

The pattern of children who witness or experience violence and who later commit acts of violence themselves has been a focal point for OJJDP in the first year of the Obama administration.

For Hanes and OJJDP, the political issue might erode a promising connection to Congress, particularly in regard to the effort to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.

“Her connection to the Hill could have helped OJJDP and the strengthening of the JJDPA,” one juvenile justice veteran told JJ Today. “But with this cloud over her, she will need to stay away from any contact.”