Frist Predicts Full Exoneration

Majority Leader Breaks Silence on HCA Probes

Posted October 18, 2005 at 6:57pm

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said Tuesday he is providing federal investigators documents related to his sales of stock in his family’s hospital chain “as fast as possible” and predicted he would be completely exonerated in the case.

In his first extended question-and-answer session with reporters in almost a month, Frist pledged his full cooperation with the two entities probing his stock transaction, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. Frist, who received an SEC subpoena for personal financial documents earlier this month, declined to specify when or if he will be interviewed by investigators.

“The specifics of the inquiry I don’t want to get into right now. Let me just say that all information that has been requested — all information that has been requested — is provided quickly and as fast as possible,” Frist said in a “dugout” briefing on the Senate floor, where television cameras were not permitted for the press session.

It’s unclear how long the dual investigations will take, and Frist said he and his lawyers had been given no indications about the case’s timeline.

“I acted properly, and I want this information to get out and let this process work. I’m not asking for special treatment. I’m just asking for fair treatment,” said Frist, who has previously acknowledged that the sales were partly an attempt to eliminate the appearance of a conflict of interest should he run for president in 2008.

The investigations center on his decision to ask the executor controlling blind trusts for him, his wife and children to dump all stocks in HCA Inc., the company founded by Frist’s brother and father. The Majority Leader was notified of the probes late in the week of Sept. 19-23. Days after the investigations became public, on Sept. 26, Frist gave a brief statement to a gaggle of reporters in the Capitol Crypt, but then declined questions and ducked into an elevator to head to an intelligence briefing.

Other than fielding brief questions as he’s briskly moved through the Capitol hallways, Frist had not responded to queries about the issue since the investigations were first announced, sending out his lieutenants to the press briefings that followed the Tuesday luncheons on Sept. 27 and Oct. 4.

Frist had not done any other press conferences since the scandal broke, although he did engage in a bit of campaign activity over the weeklong recess, prompting a report in the Miami Herald that Frist aides misdirected a reporter in order for the Majority Leader to avoid questions about the stock deal.

As such, Tuesday marked Frist’s initial time answering questions from reporters on the issue, during which he mainly stuck to the themes he outlined weeks ago in his first public statements in the Crypt.

“I am cooperating fully with the inquiry that is under way. As I said, I am cooperating at every point. I am absolutely confident of the outcome,” Frist said Tuesday.

In an interview outside his office later, Frist said that his legal team had agreed he could talk to the press to some degree about the case. “They’re OK with it,” he said.

Although advisers say the investigation is at this point focused on the financial documents involved in the HCA sales from the trusts, it’s unclear whether any of Frist’s aides would be required to talk to investigators to verify the Senator’s statements.

In particular, Frist again noted Tuesday that the sale of the stock was first raised at a meeting he held with top staff and advisers in April, which the Senator suggested would demonstrate that the sales were in no way influenced by a poor quarterly revenue report that was announced in early July. That report, which came just after Frist’s various trusts had completed selling off the HCA stocks, prompted the company’s price to drop by almost 10 percent in mid-July.

“It’s pretty clear now that the process itself for me started in April of this year. As the facts get out and people see the clear separation, they will see that I acted properly and fully based on information that was publicly available,” he said.

Frist also rejected suggestions in other reports that there was any impropriety in the Senator being made aware of additional holdings that were placed in his blind trusts, including a family partnership that was buying and selling HCA stock, much of which was then put into the trusts. According to Senate rules, Senators must be made aware of new additions to a trust, which is then managed on a day-to-day level by a trustee.

Frist has at the least been wounded politically because this controversy has called into question the validity of many statements he’s made over the past five years regarding his knowledge of how much HCA stock was in his blind trusts. Despite his statements claiming he wasn’t sure if he was holding any HCA stock, Frist had to know there was still HCA stock there because Senate rules would require the trustee to notify him that such a stock had been completely sold off.

While he shied away from the family business and instead launched an independent career as a heart surgeon, Frist did use his family’s fortune to help launch his first Senate campaign in 1994 — and has been dogged by critics ever since claiming his work in the chamber on medial issues conflicted with his own financial interests.

On Tuesday, Frist said that his sales of HCA weren’t driven by an attempt to sell off the shares before they dropped in value but instead to quiet his critics on the left and in the media.

“I’ve gotten scores and scores and scores — over 100 inquiries — about HCA, about the company,” he said.

Frist’s approach to this scandal has stood in marked contrast to that of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who, after being indicted on money laundering charges by a Texas prosecutor, went on a media offensive to proclaim his innocence and denounce his accuser.

DeLay, whose indictment came just days after the Frist investigations were launched, immediately held two media availabilities for the Capitol press corps the day of the indictment. He also went on three nationally televised cable news shows that night, another the following day and four nationally broadcast radio shows.

But Frist is in a far different situation, not indicted and not wanting to antagonize his investigators, advisers say. He actually hopes that this inquiry could once and for all put to rest the issue of his family finances, they contend.

Asked if he were on the verge of his own DeLay-like media offensive, Frist chuckled and indicated that wasn’t likely.

“What’s my style?” he asked rhetorically.