President Barack Obama urged Commerce Secretary John Bryson to focus on his health, three days after he was treated for a seizure following a series of minor traffic accidents.
Obama spoke with Bryson today and said he should “focus his thoughts on his own health, on his own family,” Josh Earnest, a White House spokesman, told reporters traveling with Obama today to a fundraiser near Baltimore.
Bryson, 68, was found unconscious in his Lexus about 5:10 p.m. Los Angeles time on June 9, after the second of two collisions, police said. He had a seizure, went to a hospital for observation and was back at work in Washington yesterday, Jennifer Friedman, a U.S. Commerce Department spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Bryson announced last night he was going on leave and transferred his duties to Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, an economist whom he named as acting secretary.
“Effective immediately I am taking a medical leave of absence so that I can focus all of my attention on resolving the health issues that arose over the weekend,” Bryson said in a statement released by his office.
Blank, who served as acting commerce secretary prior to Bryson’s confirmation, has Obama’s confidence to run the department, Earnest said.
Bryson is undergoing tests to determine the cause of the seizure, and will consult with doctors to determine when he can return, said a Commerce Department official who requested anonymity.
The commerce secretary, whose agency has 47,000 employees and a $7.5 billion budget, allegedly drove his car into the rear of a stopped vehicle and five minutes later struck another car two miles away, according to police. Police are investigating the case as a possible felony hit-and-run, which can result in at least a year in prison upon conviction, the police said. Authorities tested his blood for alcohol, and said results are pending.
“If they come back benign, there probably won’t be any charges as far as the sheriff’s department is concerned,” Steve Whitmore, a Los Angeles County sheriff spokesman, said in an interview. Bryson passed a breathalyzer test for alcohol at the scene, Whitmore said.
San Gabriel Police also would probably forgo filing charges if medical conditions contributed to the incident, said Lieutenant Ariel Duran.
Bryson “appeared disoriented” after his car rear-ended a Buick that had stopped to wait for a train to clear a four-lane road east of downtown Los Angeles in San Gabriel, said police officials, citing the occupants of the Buick. 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, 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 was no indication alcohol or drugs were involved, police said.
A decision by the sheriff’s department against filing hit-and-run charges may leave Bryson open to other penalties. In California, a driver who has lapses of consciousness can have his license revoked or suspended. Drivers can be placed on probation, which lets the Department of Motor Vehicles monitor a driver’s medical condition, according to the agency website.
Bryson has told colleagues he never had a seizure before, according the Commerce Department official. No medical concerns arose during Bryson’s confirmation hearing, said Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation which conducted the confirmation hearing.
“I’ve never heard of it,” Rockefeller said today in an interview. “I’m very sad, and I hope that it’s just something he can get treatment for. He’s the kind of person who works so hard that the very idea of going and getting a checkup” might not be a top priority.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Mark Pope said authorities were told Bryson suffers from a medical condition that is considered relevant by investigators. He said he had no details of the condition and couldn’t say if it causes seizures.
Bryson was in California, where he owns a house, to speak at the June 7 commencement for the Polytechnic School in Pasadena, which his four children attended. Bryson and his wife, Louise, have been board members, said Leslie Carmell, a spokeswoman for the school.
Bryson became commerce secretary after Gary Locke took over as U.S. ambassador to China.
Blank served as acting secretary for several months last year after Locke’s departure and before Bryson took office. She has worked for the agency since 2009, when she was named under secretary for economic affairs and head of the Economics and Statistics Administration. ESA oversees the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Prior to arriving at the Commerce Department, Blank was a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution and dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. She has also been an economics professor at Northwestern University. She obtained a doctorate in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Bryson’s agency is under pressure to deliver on 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.
Bryson joined Edison International, based in Rosemead 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.