Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.), reportedly the White House choice to succeed Trent Lott (R.-Miss.) as Senate majority leader, is a major shareholder in HCA, a for-profit hospital chain founded by his father and brother. HCA reportedly provides abortions to its customers.
So now Republicans face this question: If it is disqualifying for their Senate leader to make offensive remarks interpreted as endorsing an immoral policy that denied African-Americans equal rights, is it also disqualifying for their Senate leader to make money from a hospital chain that denies unborn babies the right to life?
Frist has deposited his major stockholdings in a "blind trust" chartered Dec. 28, 2000. A schedule of the original assets in this trust filed with the Senate showed holdings in 16 companies. Frist reported the value of these assets, as per Senate rules, within broad ranges (e.g. $1,001-$15,001). If the lowest possible value is assigned to each holding, Frist at that time had invested a minimum of $566,015 in 15 other companies, while investing at least $5,000,001 in HCA.
That would mean that approximately 89% of his holdings were in this company.
Furthermore, on its face, the trust agreement appears structured to allow the administrators to maintain this heavy concentration in HCA stock. It also specifically instructs the administrators to inform Frist if they divest entirely from any holding, including HCA. And, finally, it gives Frist the power to directly order the administrators to divest from HCA or any other holding that Frist determines "creates a conflict of interest or the appearance thereof."
HCA does not trumpet its reported involvement with abortion. But, in April, Catholic Financial Services Corporation (CFSC), a mutual fund company, announced that it was starting an S&P 500 Index Fund that would "exclude companies on the abortion issue"-and that HCA was one of only six companies on the index that would be excluded on these grounds. A spokesman for the mutual fund explained to me last week that the company excludes hospital chains that perform abortions and pharmaceutical companies that deal in drugs that induce abortion.
On December 18 and 19, I placed several calls to HCA corporate spokesman Jeff Prescott, to ask him directly whether abortions were performed in HCA facilities, or whether the company refuted CFSCs determination that they were. I left him voice messages to this effect, and repeatedly told his secretary my questions. At 5:00 p.m. on the 19th, as press time approached, the secretary left me lingering on hold with no answer. When I hung up and called back, I got Prescotts voice mail again and left him one last message. He never returned my call.
I also spoke with Sen. Frists spokesman, Nick Smith. I explained to Smith my understanding that the terms of Frists "blind" trust allowed the administrators to maintain a heavy concentration in HCA, while allowing Frist to order the sale of this stock, and while also compelling the administrators to inform Frist if they divested entirely from HCA or any other holding. I cited the specific passages in the trust to this effect. I also asked Smith to clarify Frists position on abortion-which has confounded pro-lifers over the years-and why Frist would not divest, since he apparently could, from a company that reportedly performs abortions.
When Frist first ran for the Senate in 1994, the Nashville Banner reported that he "frequently" said he "does not believe abortion should be outlawed." In a May 1994 radio interview, the Banner reported, Frist said, "Its a very private decision." One of Frists Republican primary rivals, Steve Wilson, the Banner said, "demanded that Frist sell his millions of dollars in stock in the Hospital Corporation of America [HCA], which Frists family founded. Some of the hospitals in the chain perform abortions."
Tennessee Right to Life PAC Director Sherry Holden, however, told the Banner that Frist had told her organization he was pro-life. "He said hes against abortion, period-no exceptions, except rape and incest," said Holden.
Yet, an Oct. 10, 1994, Memphis Commercial Appeal report on a debate between Frist and incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser (D.-Tenn.) said: "There were some topics on which the candidates agreed-both said theyre personally opposed to abortion but dont think the government should prohibit abortions."
I asked Smith whether Frist wanted to prohibit abortion either by constitutional amendment or by over-turning Roe v. Wade and enacting prohibitions in the states, including Tennessee.
Smith responded by faxing me a statement. The White House, pro-life Republican senators, and their grassroots supporters can decide whether it is responsive:
"These two issues [the HCA investment and abortion] are separate and distinct," wrote Smith.
"On his own accord, by placing his assets in a federally qualified blind trust, Sen. Frist took a step above and beyond to ensure there is no conflict of interest," wrote Smith. "He believes this was the proper and responsible thing to do. He has never been employed by, or served on the board of, HCA or any of its hospitals.
"As a U.S. senator who acts on public policy each and every day, his record on abortion is clear," Smith continued. "He is opposed to abortion except in the instances of rape, incest and when the life of the mother is threatened. He is opposed to federal funding of abortion. And in the Senate, he led the fight against partial-birth abortion."
His Senate website includes a statement saying, "No one can deny the potential human cloning holds for increased scientific understanding. But . . . I am unable to find a compelling justification for allowing human cloning today."
As Bill Clinton might say, that doesnt rule out tomorrow-when he may be Senate majority leader.