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Frist Embraces HCA on Stump

Far from running away from the controversial business that made his family fortune, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) continues to embrace HCA Inc. as a symbol of the “American dream” in his political stump speeches as he tests the presidential waters for 2008.

In both South Carolina and Iowa last weekend, Frist invoked the founding of the company and its explosive growth into the largest hospital company in the nation as a rags-to-riches story — less than a month after two federal investigations were launched into the Senator’s decision to flush HCA stocks from the trusts in his name and those of his wife and children.

The Frist stump speech is woven throughout with stories of his early days as a heart transplant surgeon and his medical heroes, culminating with a cornerstone anecdote of HCA’s founding by his late father, Thomas Frist Sr. The speech, which aides said was similarly styled in both the Palmetto State and the Hawkeye State, is meant to convey a Reaganesque optimism about the nation, as embodied in his father’s rise from humble roots to head of that powerful hospital chain.

“He seized the opportunity to work his way up. He did it the hard way, he did it the right way, the American way,” Frist told a crowd of several hundred Saturday at the Iowa Republican Party’s annual Ronald Reagan dinner.

Aides said this week that Frist has been using the HCA anecdote as part of his political speeches for several years, and they indicated that he’s not about to change course now because of the investigations into the timing of his stock sales from the trusts. Indeed, they called it a sign of the confidence Frist has in his actions, certain that the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York will find he did nothing wrong.

Those investigators are probing Frist’s decision to tell the executor of his blind trusts to sell all of his HCA stock in mid-June, with those sales completed by early July. Days after Frist’s sales, the company released a poor quarterly earnings report and its stock dropped nearly 10 percent. The Senator has denied he had any inside information about HCA and acknowledged that the sales were motivated by an attempt to rid himself of the political question marks that came with holding so much stock in the health care company in advance of the potential 2008 race.

Publicly, Frist and his advisers are trying to put the best face on the investigations, saying their hope is that the probes will clear him and could potentially settle the issue once and for all.

In the meantime, Frist said Wednesday he has no plans to hide from his family’s company.

“It’s the American dream,” the Senator said of HCA.

Asked about his decision to employ HCA as a political device in speeches at a time when his ties to the company are under investigation, Frist said the anecdote might now be drawing more scrutiny because of the federal probes into his trades. “People are paying more attention to it,” he said.

But he was adamant that he would never drop the “American dream” story of HCA from his stump speeches. “Me? No, no, no,” he said.

In that regard, his political future will be even more interwoven with HCA than ever before — a slight irony, given Frist’s decisions early in life to essentially shun his father’s company for a career as a surgeon while his brother, Thomas Frist Jr., took over the company. Frist Jr., who left the company in the mid-1990s and later reclaimed power after a federal investigation into its billing practices, is currently CEO emeritus of HCA.

While he never worked for HCA, Frist used a personal fortune derived from the hospital chain’s profits as the financial underpinning for his 1994 run for the Senate. In 2000, when he formed the blind trusts in an effort to curtail criticisms of the appearance of a conflict, Senate records show he deposited more than $10 million worth of HCA stock into his blind trusts.

After his mother and father passed away, aides say Frist and his wife and children inherited more HCA stock. He then deposited about $2 million worth of that new stock into their blind trusts in 2001 and 2002, according to letters sent to Frist and the Senate Ethics Committee. Those notification letters have generated some level of controversy in the media and from liberal activists questioning how “blind” Frist’s trust actually was, despite the fact that they appear to have been filed exactly as ethics rules require. And Frist had no control over the handling of the additional HCA stock once it was deposited into the trusts.

Instead of an ethics issue, however, those letters have created a political problem for Frist, who in media interviews as recently as a few years ago claimed he wasn’t aware if he had much HCA stock or, in one instance, whether he had any at all — a declaration he knew at the time to be false, as ethics rules would have required his trust director to notify him if he disposed of an entire stock holding.

In an interview with Tennessee reporters Tuesday, Frist acknowledged his mistake and said he should have been “more precise” in his statements about the HCA holdings in his trusts.

It’s unclear how much damage the controversy will do to Frist’s presidential ambitions, but for now he’s proceeding as if the cloud will pass without much fanfare. His trips to Iowa and South Carolina, early battleground states in the presidential nominating fight, were followed by a private political trip to Michigan on Sunday.

His aides declined to say where his next political trip will be but said more travels are likely after the Senate finishes its work for the year.

And, while at those events his audience can expect to hear the story about a boy named “Tommy,” Frist’s father who grew up in Meridian, Miss., whose father died when Tommy was 10. His mother, Frist’s grandmother, turned their Mississippi home into a boarding house, where Tommy met a local doctor who inspired him to go to medical school and become a doctor in Nashville, opening hospitals throughout the South.

“You see,” Frist told the Iowa audience about HCA and his family. “Tommy was my dad. He was the embodiment of the American dream.”

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