A December 4 Associated Press article on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's (R-TN) pattern of supporting legislation that benefits HCA Inc., the hospital company that his family founded, reported without challenge disputed assertions attributed to his "supporters." Further, the article completely omitted any mention of the ongoing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Justice Department investigations into the sale of all of Frist's stock in the company earlier this year, shortly before a weak earnings report caused share prices to plummet.
The trend in Frist's legislative record came to light after the Nashville Tennessean newspaper conducted an analysis of his Senate votes since he took office in 1995. A December 4 Tennessean article reported that "an examination of Frist's voting record over his nearly 11 years in the Senate shows a pattern of supporting bills friendly to HCA and to hospitals in general. His votes typically have followed the Republican Party line."
The AP article reporting the Tennessean's analysis of Frist's voting record appeared on the wires at 9:58 p.m. on December 4 and was published verbatim in the December 5 edition of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. The story included a sentence taken directly from the original Tennessean article that read: "Frist's supporters note that he hasn't always voted for bills in HCA's interest and say he has followed all Senate ethics rules."
But the question of whether Frist "followed all Senate ethics rules" remains very much in dispute, despite his supporters' claims to the contrary. A September 24 Washington Post article reported:
Congressional critics questioned the reason Frist gave for selling the stock. Senate rules allow lawmakers to divest all of their shares in a company from a blind trust, but only if they assume new duties and find that their ownership presents the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Frist has held HCA shares in a blind trust since he came to the Senate in 1995. He was promoted to majority leader in 2002. Frist regularly deflected concerns about owning the shares while leading health care debates by saying he kept them in a blind trust.
"I don't know what new duties he would point to above and beyond becoming majority leader, and that was three years ago," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, an ethics advocate.
Moreover, as the Tennessean went on to report, ethics watchdog groups argue that it is irrelevant whether Frist voted for legislation in "HCA's interest" all of the time or only part of the time:
There are some examples of Frist voting in a way that has not been in HCA's interest.
He voted with a majority of Republicans, and Democrats, to cut Medicare reimbursements for hospitals as part of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
Still, government watchdog groups say that Frist's ties to HCA pose a conflict of interest.
"Because he owned so much stock in HCA ... there is the appearance that any legislation that could help the company would have helped him financially," said Mike Surrusco, ethics director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan watchdog group, based in Washington, which has called on the Senate ethics committee to reconsider whether Frist should be prohibited from voting on bills that could affect the fortunes of his family.
Further, the AP article failed to note the principal reason for the media attention on Frist's relationship to HCA: his conspicuous sale of all of his and his immediate family's HCA stock holdings in June -- just before the stock price plummeted -- which the SEC and Justice Department are now investigating.