Commerce Chief Suffered Seizure, California Car Accidents

Former U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson
Former U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson. Photographer: Nelson Ching/Bloomberg

U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson was treated for a seizure after driving his luxury car into two vehicles in separate Los Angeles County accidents five minutes apart during the weekend.

Bryson, 68, was found unconscious at the wheel of his Lexus about 5:10 p.m. Los Angeles time on June 9, after the second of two collisions, police in Los Angeles said today. He suffered a seizure, and was taken to a hospital where he remained overnight, Jennifer Friedman, a Commerce Department spokeswoman, said today in a statement.

“He was released and has returned to Washington,” she said. “The investigation is ongoing.” Police said they are investigating felony hit-and-run charges in the case.

Bryson leads an agency under pressure to deliver on President Barack Obama’s goal of doubling annual U.S. exports to $3.14 trillion by the end of 2014 from $1.57 trillion in 2009, according to a White House report to Congress last year. He took the post eight months ago after spending more than two decades at Southern California utilities, and was chairman and chief executive officer of Edison International until 2008.

White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew talked with Bryson today, Jay Carney, the Obama administration press secretary, said, without elaborating on the discussions.

‘Gathering Information’

“We’re still in the process of gathering information” about the Bryson incident, Carney said. “There’s more than needs to be learned.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Pope said authorities were told Bryson “suffers from a pre-existing medical condition,” according to ABC News Radio.

Bryson’s Lexus rear-ended a Buick that had stopped about 5:05 p.m. on June 9 to wait for a train to clear the four-lane road in San Gabriel, California, Steve Whitmore, a Los Angeles County sheriff spokesman, said in an interview. Occupants in the Buick spoke to Bryson and said he “appeared disoriented,” San Gabriel Police Lieutenant Ariel Duran said. Bryson struck the vehicle a second time as he left the scene, prompting the Buick’s driver to follow and call the 911 emergency line.

After driving south for about 1.9 miles past gasoline stations, a Chinese grocery and a Serbian Orthodox Church, Bryson struck a Honda Accord in Rosemead, California, about 5:10 p.m., causing minor injuries to the passengers. He was found alone and unconscious at the scene by police. There is no indication alcohol or drugs were involved, police said.

Bryson’s Lexus

Conviction on a felony hit-and-run charge can result in at least a year in state prison, the police said.

The Commerce secretary was using his own vehicle and wasn’t traveling with his government security detail, Friedman said. He was treated with medication for the seizure, she said.

More than 2 million people in the U.S. have experienced seizures without an identifiable cause, according to the website of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Although some seizures may cause violent physical symptoms, such as muscle spasms, most are milder, lasting from half a minute to two minutes, according to the agency, part of the Bethesda, Maryland-based National Institutes of Health. Sudden, abnormal electrical outbursts that disrupt normal activity of the brain may result in a seizure, according to the website.

‘Short Circuiting’

“It’s like the misfiring or short circuiting of a complicated computer,” Carl Bazil, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Center at Columbia University in New York, said in a telephone interview. “An infection, bleeding in the brain, an abnormally high or low blood sugar, a tumor, all sorts of things can set off a seizure.”

The trip by Bryson to California, where he still owns a house, included delivering the commencement address June 7 at the Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California, where he previously served on the board, according to the school’s website. The school teaches kindergarten through 12th grade.

Bryson became Commerce secretary after Gary Locke took over as U.S. ambassador to China. As Commerce secretary, he oversees almost 47,000 employees and a $7.5 billion agency budget to promote job creation and economic growth.

Bryson joined Edison International, based in Rosemead and and owner of electric power generation facilities, in 1984 and was named chairman and CEO in 1990. He retired in 2008. In September 2010, he became chairman of BrightSource Energy Inc., an Oakland, California-based developer of solar-power plants. The company tapped a $1.6 billion loan from the U.S. government in 2011 to build its Ivanpah project in the Mojave Desert.

Bryson Backers

His nomination was supported by the Business Roundtable, representing CEOs of companies such as Boeing Co., and opposed by Republicans including Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who criticized Bryson’s support in the past for legislation to cap carbon emissions.

The president has said development of clean and renewable energy industries is key to keeping the nation competitive in the global economy and increasing exports. Bryson’s background complements that emphasis.

“John Bryson will be a key member of my economic team, working with the business community to promote job creation, foster growth and help open up new markets around the world for American-made goods,” Obama said after the new Commerce secretary took office on Oct. 21.

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