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Frist Folks Freak

Journalists who cover Congress have always known Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s chief of staff, Eric Ueland, to be a contemplative, mild-mannered intellectual. Until Tuesday, when, during the Tennessee Republican’s off-camera dugout with reporters, Ueland appeared to blow a gasket over a question about Frist’s sale of stock in HCA Inc., his family’s hospital company.

A young Associated Press reporter named Jonathan Katz sparked the firestorm by asking a question that challenged Frist’s assertion that he had no idea how much his HCA stock was worth when he sold it two weeks before share prices plummeted. Frist answered, partially. And he sort of answered a follow-up question from Washington Post reporter Chuck Babington. But Frist said “no more questions” on that matter when CNN reporter Ed Henry asked whether the Majority Leader had met with SEC investigators.

After the off-camera dugout ended, Ueland “berated” and “bullied” the AP reporter, according to other reporters, for initiating the line of questioning. Ueland accused Katz of not understanding the issue after having been repeatedly briefed on the HCA matter.

One reporter said Ueland was “demeaning and rude” to the young AP journalist. Another veteran reporter said Ueland “went over the line” in “dressing the guy down” — in front of about 25 other reporters, no less. Yet another Senate reporter said, “It was outrageous. [Ueland] was yelling at the kid. And Eric is usually a very calm and cool guy.”

Reporters who attended the dugout said Frist looked rattled over questions about the HCA deal, which remains the subject of dual federal investigations, and speculated that perhaps Ueland snapped because Frist doesn’t have a good defense. They also noted that Frist has largely avoided cameras since the controversy broke and has moved his dugouts — when he holds them — into the Senate chamber, where cameras and tape recorders are prohibited.

“Now everyone’s talking about it. ... Now I’m wondering if he’s gotten another subpoena. It makes me think there’s something going on,” one veteran journalist said.

Frist spokesman Bob Stevenson said Frist is strictly limited in what he can say about the ongoing investigation. As for Ueland’s behavior, he said, “Anyone who knows Eric knows him to be a soft-spoken, thoughtful and a knowledgeable student of the Senate and its traditions. He has great respect for Senate rules and procedures and holds others associated with the day-to-day activities in the Senate to the same high standard.

“His comments amounted to a vigorous defense of the facts in the case and explanation of Senate ethics rules and regulations. His conversation off the floor was factual, not personal.”

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