Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told his Republican colleagues Tuesday that the decision to sell his HCA Inc. stock was both “legal and proper” and assured Senators he remained focused on the party’s legislative goals despite two federal inquiries into the matter.
Frist is being questioned about any personal knowledge of his family’s blind trust and the timing of the sale of his HCA stock, which took place this summer, just before the hospital chain reported poor quarterly earnings. The Majority Leader first spoke publicly about the controversy late Monday afternoon, but provided a “more personal statement” to his colleagues less than 24 hours later at a regularly scheduled private meeting, Republican Senators and aides said.
“He asked for a chance to explain things,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who, along with Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), spoke on Frist’s behalf at the meeting. “As far as I was concerned he explained it completely just as he did to the public yesterday.”
Prior to the meeting, McConnell took to the Senate floor to express his support for Frist and echoed his comments soon after at a media availability outside the Senate chamber.
“I have absolutely no doubt that the facts will demonstrate that Sen. Frist acted in the most professional and the most ethical manner as he has throughout his distinguished medical and Senate career,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
On Monday, Frist said he decided to sell all of his interest in HCA — a company founded by his family — to avoid any conflicts of interest during the remaining 15 months that he will serve in the chamber. The Tennessee Republican is retiring at the conclusion of the 109th Congress and is considering a run for president in 2008.
Frist declined to comment on the matter Tuesday afternoon, but did acknowledge he was gratified for his colleagues’ support. So far, Republican Senators appear to be rallying to Frist’s side, while leading Senate Democrats have steered clear of publicly questioning Frist’s motives.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday that he took Frist at his word when the Majority Leader said he would cooperate with the investigations.
But privately Democrats said they are waiting to see if the Securities and Exchange Commission or the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York unearths any illegal activity during the course of their investigations.
“There is no reason to politicize what could potentially be a serious criminal act by Bill Frist,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Rest assured, we will make sure that Bill Frist is held accountable for his actions.”
Frist’s advisers are managing the controversy on two levels: the immediate impact on his current role as Majority Leader and the longer-term consequences it might have on a 2008 presidential bid.
One potential rival of Frist’s for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), said he sought out the Majority Leader on Tuesday to speak to him about what it’s like to go through a public investigation, reflecting on his own experiences during the “Keating Five” savings and loan scandal in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
While McCain declined to address what he specifically told Frist, the Arizona Senator said he gave him roughly the same advice he has given other lawmakers who get caught up in similar investigations: “Get it out and answer all the questions.”
McCain said he thought Frist would be offering more answers to the questions about the blind trusts, but declined to elaborate.
Beyond McConnell and Alexander, McCain gave Frist one of the most full-throated endorsements of anyone in the GOP Conference.
“He’s an honest man and I’m convinced he’ll be fully cleared,” McCain said, adding later, “I think he’s a man of great integrity.”
Another potential presidential rival, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), said there was too much of a rush to judgment on Frist’s transactions and that the investigations should be allowed to proceed to a conclusion.
“I just believe people ought to be given due process,” Allen said.
In light of the recent controversy surrounding Frist’s stock sale, Reid said he is now reconsidering his decision to open a blind trust. Reid, who was on the verge of opening up his own blind trust, said he has since spoken to his lawyer and might now instead choose to invest his money in other savings vehicles such as mutual funds.