Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has maintained for years that his stock holdings in the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain posed no conflict of interest for a policymaker deeply involved in health care matters. He even received two rulings in the 1990s from the Senate ethics committee that blessed the holding of the stock in blind trusts.
So when Frist decided in June to dump all the stock, and later cited as the reason his desire to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, eyebrows went up among ethics experts and congressional watchdogs. Why did he do it at that time?
Precisely a month later, after the stock was sold, its price tumbled 9 percent when executives in the company -- HCA Inc., which was founded by Frist's father and on whose board Frist's brother serves -- disclosed that hospital admissions of insured patients were lower than expected, depressing profits in the second quarter.
The timing thus raised questions about whether Frist had somehow traded on information he obtained in advance from the company. "Frist has been in the Senate for many years now, and the conflict is not new," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "Why did he decide to sell it then? Why not years ago? What's changed? Did he know that the stock was about to take a fall?"
Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said yesterday that Frist "did not have any conversations with HCA executives about HCA stock when he was making the decision to divest." Asked more generally whether he had discussed the company's performance with its executives, she replied, "No."
She said Frist's decision was based "purely on wanting to avoid any future appearances of conflict" while pursuing new health initiatives, and said he had no way of knowing -- under the rules of the blind trusts -- how quickly the stock would be sold. Call promised to provide recent examples of criticism directed at Frist's stock holdings, but all those she eventually cited occurred before May 2004.
Until the sale, Frist's holdings in HCA formed a significant source of his wealth. His political career was launched in part by a loan secured by the stock; in 1994, he valued his holdings at $13 million, and the following year he placed them in a blind trust. In 2000, he transferred the HCA stock into a new blind trust, a transaction that could have given him insight into its value.
Frist's signed financial disclosure statements indicate that the overall value of his blind trusts did not substantially change from 2003 to 2004. As one of the Senate's multimillionaires, Frist has other non-HCA-stock holdings outside of the trusts.
Several ethics experts and watchdogs said they found it odd that Frist could intervene to order such a sale when the HCA stock was ostensibly out of his reach in blind trusts. Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said, "The notion that you have a blind trust but you can tell your trustee when to sell stock in it just doesn't make any sense. It means you have a seeing eye trust and not a blind trust. It's ridiculous."
Larry Noble, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, agreed that the arrangement "seems to defeat the purpose of a blind trust. Somebody else is supposed to have control over it to avoid potential conflicts of interest. If you can just reach in and sell stock, it seems it defeats the whole purpose."
A sample agreement for blind trusts published by the Senate ethics committee staff on its Web site states that there should be no "direct or indirect communication" between senators and trustees unless the senator is directing the trustee "to sell all of an asset . . . [which] creates a conflict of interest or the appearance thereof due to the subsequent assumption of duties" by the senator.
Jan W. Baran, a Republican ethics expert at Wiley Rein & Fielding LLP, said, "That's the question, 'What changed?' " to compel Frist to sell his stock when he did.
According to Senate ethics rules, Baran said, Frist "can tell somebody to dispose of all of an asset that was initially placed into the blind trust. As a matter of Senate ethics rules, he is in compliance. The question that remains is, why did he sell the stock at that time? What conflicts arose in June that did not exist beforehand?"
"For the Securities and Exchange Commission," Baran added, "the answer is probably very important."
According to Thomson Financial, a reporting service, seven senior HCA executives sold 574,882 shares worth $19,942,610 between May 17 and June 10. A company spokesman, Jeff Prescott, said the executives are entitled "like other stockholders [to] make personal decisions . . . about when to sell." He said the executives complied with "blackout restrictions" imposed by the SEC to prevent dealing within a certain period prior to restatements of earnings.
An SEC spokesman said it is the commission's policy not to comment on investigations, and would neither confirm nor deny that it is probing insider trading at HCA.
Researcher Richard Drezen, in New York, contributed to this report.