Hanes traveled abroad with Baucus twice in '08

Former U.S. attorney nominee Melodee Hanes traveled abroad with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and six other staff members twice at the end of 2008, both times as a member of the lawmaker's office.

Those two trips -- to the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam -- occurred while Hanes was serving in an official capacity as the state director for the Montana Democrat, but before Baucus recommended her for an attorney position she later turned down.

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Joining Baucus on both stops, which featured discussions about international trade and education opportunities, were William Dauster, a staff director for the Senate Finance Committee; Jon Selib, Baucus' chief of staff; Demetrios Marantis, Chelsea Thomas and Janis Lazda, formerly international trade specialists for the Finance Committee; and Carol Guthrie, the committee's former communications director.

All received the same per diem of roughly $200 for the UAE trip and more than $700 for the Vietnam stop, according to foreign travel reports published in the Congressional Record.

While it is normal for staff members to accompany lawmakers on foreign events and meetings, the Senate Finance Committee chairman's trip in particular could raise some ethical red flags, experts suggested on Saturday.

Hanes has been dating Baucus since the summer of 2008, and if she was invited on a trip that "she would not have gone on otherwise" based on her position, Baucus may find himself in the wrong, noted Melanie Sloan, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW).

Sloan added that CREW has not yet decided whether to request the congressional ethics committee open an inquiry into either the nomination process or the two trips abroad, as it was still too early to make that determination.

Other congressional watchdogs, however, more clearly signaled an investigation was necessary -- even if only to clear Baucus of any wrongdoing

"When you do go on one of these trips, one of the things you're supposed to certify is that you're going on the trip for a legitimate purpose, to do public business," said Meredith McGeehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, noting she would support a probe.

She added the senator's trips "certainly [raise] questions about the judgment he has used and his motivations for taking Hanes along, even if otherwise, on every other kind of decision, it would be legitimate."

The senator's office, however, was unavailable to comment Saturday evening on the full details of those trips.