As recently as 2005, then Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee was a presumed front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination to succeed President Bush. Today he’s not even in the Senate. A conflict of interest exposed by Consumer Watchdog drove him out of politics.
When Frist controlled the U.S. Senate in 2003 and 2004 as majority leader, he made a big mistake. At the time there was little chance that he or the Senate Ethics Committee would respond favorably to my consumer group’s written concerns about his conflicts of interest with his family’s business. But we created a record that years later undermined Frist’s power and helped to end his political career.
Frist, a doctor whose family controlled one of the nation’s largest hospital chains, was then backing a Senate bill to limit legal accountability for doctors and hospitals when they commit medical malpractice. We publicly demanded that Frist sell at least $25 million of stock he held in the Frist family company, HCA. HCA was one of America’s largest hospital companies and owner of HCI, the nation’s fifth biggest medical malpractice insurer. No one had ever heard of this issue before we put it on the map for the media and opinion leaders, but afterward it was closely tracked.
“HCI, HCA and your entire family stand to profit directly from the passage of malpractice caps legislation,” we wrote to Frist. Of course, Frist did not divest his stock, nor recuse himself from the medical malpractice vote. We got some press at the time, but, more importantly, the record we created came back to haunt Senator Frist two years later.
When Frist finally sold the stock in September 2005, he did it just before the stock price tumbled, suggesting his family had given him an insider tip. A lot of eyes were watching by then. Frist was subpoenaed by the Justice Department and the SEC in an insider trading investigation of his well-timed sale. The investigation was made public two days after we sent another letter calling for an inquiry to the SEC and U.S. attorney.
The record we had created years before, when it looked like we could not win the fight, was significant in the demise of Frist’s political career. The scandal put an end to Frist’s presidential ambitions. His medical malpractice legislation, stained by the insider-trading allegation, never passed. The record, not the outcome of the initial battle, mattered most in the end.
Doing the right thing at the right time usually produces the right result in the end. The tension between progressives, who want their officials to stand on principle, and politicians, who want accomplishments before the next election, is constant and inevitable. It’s our job to urge the politicians to put what’s right over what’s convenient.
Excerpted from The Progressive's Guide to Raising Hell: How To Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws And Get The Change We Voted For (Chelsea Green).