Health Wasn’t an Issue During U.S. Commerce Chief’s Confirmation

The health of U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, now on leave after having a seizure, wasn’t raised as a concern during his Senate confirmation last year, according to the lawmaker who oversaw the process.

“I’ve never heard of” any medical issues, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, chairman of the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, said in an interview. “I hope that it’s just something he can get treatment for.” He described Bryson as “the kind of person who works so hard that the very idea of going and getting a checkup” might not be a top priority.

Bryson put himself on medical leave June 11 after being treated for a seizure following a series of minor car accidents. He is undergoing tests and will consult with doctors to determine when he can return, said a Commerce Department official who requested anonymity. Bryson hadn’t previously experienced a seizure, the official said.

President Barack Obama spoke to the 68-year-old Bryson yesterday and told him to focus on his health, according to Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman.

Doctors often need extensive testing to find the cause of a seizure, and in many cases the trigger may not be found, Carl Bazil, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Columbia University in New York, said in a telephone interview.

‘Complicated Computer’

More than 2 million people in the U.S. have experienced a seizure without an identifiable cause, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website. Although some seizures may cause violent physical symptoms, such as muscle spasms, most are outwardly milder, lasting from half a minute to two minutes, according to the site of the agency, based in Bethesda, Maryland.

Normal brain function depends on coordinated electrical activity flowing through nerve cells and the connections between them, called synapses. Sudden, abnormal electrical outbursts in the brain may results in a seizure, according to the web site.

“It’s like the misfiring or short circuiting of a complicated computer,” Bazil said. “An infection, bleeding in the brain, an abnormally high or low blood sugar, a tumor, all sorts of things can set off a seizure.”

Bryson delivered a commencement address for the Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California, on June 7. Some parents and students said he made mistakes, appeared to lose his place and mispronounced words, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday. All four of Bryson’s children are graduates of the private prep school.

Heartfelt Speech

“I’m an educator, not a doctor, and I’m not qualified to comment on any health issues,” Deborah Reed, the head of the school, said June 11 through a spokesperson. In a statement, the school said Bryson gave a “heartfelt and personal speech,” and urged students to pursue their passions and serve their country.

Bryson, who leads the agency tasked with delivering on Obama’s goal of doubling annual U.S. exports to $3.14 trillion by the end of 2014 from 2009 levels, got off to a rocky start when Republicans held up his confirmation for almost five months.

Some Senate Republicans said Bryson, as co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, was too close to the environmental community to be an effective business advocate. He took office in October.

Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, used his prerogative to block legislative action on Bryson’s nomination, “because here’s a guy who wants to kill commerce.”

Solyndra Loan

Bryson’s role with a solar-energy company backed with a U.S. loan guarantee drew scrutiny after the collapse of Solyndra LLC, a California solar-panel maker that got a $535 million U.S. loan guarantee.

He was chairman of BrightSource Energy Inc. (BRSE) when it received a $1.6 billion loan to build a solar-panel field in California in April 2011.

Republicans led by Representative Darrell Issa of California, the panel’s chairman, have said the company had a cozy relationship with the administration. Former White House Chief of Staff William Daley served on the Boeing Co. (BA) board with Bryson.

The Energy Department and the White House have said the loan to BrightSource was made on its merits.

Bryson’s responsibilities at the agency that also runs the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will be handled by Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, an economist whom he named as acting secretary. Blank represented Bryson at a U.S. India Business Council meeting yesterday.

Bryson allegedly drove his car into the rear of a stopped vehicle at about 5 p.m. on June 9 in Los Angeles County. Five minutes later he struck another car two miles away, according to police. Police said they are investigating the case as a possible felony hit-and-run, which can result in at least a year in prison upon conviction. Authorities tested his blood for alcohol, and it is likely no criminal charges will be brought if tests show he suffered a medical condition, according to police.

To contact the reporters on this story: William McQuillen in Washington at bmcquillen@bloomberg.net; Jim Snyder in Washington at jsnyder24@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

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