Economist takes U.S. Commerce reins for 2nd time

WASHINGTON Tue Jun 12, 2012 5:33pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - One day after Commerce Secretary John Bryson said he would take indefinite medical leave following three car crashes in California, his second-in-command, Deputy Commerce Secretary Rebecca Blank, stepped up to run the agency - for the second time in less than a year.

Blank, an economist, headed Commerce for three months last year after Bryson's predecessor, Gary Locke, left to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

Bryson told employees he trusts her to manage the agency while he seeks medical treatment, and President Barack Obama also has confidence in her leadership, his spokesman said.

Commerce officials have said Bryson, 68, suffered a seizure before crashing into two vehicles - one of them twice - near his home in the Los Angeles suburbs.

The Commerce secretary was found unconscious behind the wheel of his Lexus on Saturday after crashing into the same car twice, leaving the scene and then hitting another vehicle, police in southern California said. Police are investigating at least one crash as a felony hit-and-run accident.

"As you know, Dr. Blank has strengthened our Department in this role before. I have every confidence in her," Bryson said in a note to Commerce Department employees on Monday night.

Obama spoke on Tuesday with Bryson by telephone and urged him to focus on his health and his family in their first conversation since Bryson came under investigation.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the conversation was short and Obama encouraged Bryson to focus on "his own health in getting the care and medical treatment that he needs."

Speaking with reporters in Owings Mills, Maryland, where Obama was traveling, Earnest also said the president expressed confidence in Blank.

Bryson wrote a memo to Blank, an economist who earned her PhD at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turning over his responsibilities.

"During the period of my illness, I will not perform the functions and duties of my office. Therefore, by operation of law, as my first assistant, you will act in my stead for the duration of my absence," Bryson said.

Commerce Department officials have said they do not know the length of Bryson's leave, since that depends on medical test results and the advice of his doctors.

If Bryson were to formally resign, Obama would likely have a hard time finding a new Commerce secretary just five months ahead of an election against Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

OVERSAW WEATHER SERVICE PROBE

Obama first tapped Blank, a veteran of President Bill Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers and former dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, in early 2009 as under secretary for economic affairs at the Commerce Department.

Two years later, Obama chose her for the No. 2 slot. From August to October 2011, she served as acting department head after Locke's departure.

Blank recently oversaw an internal investigation that found employees of the U.S. National Weather Service improperly shifted millions of dollars in budget resources to weather service offices around the country.

The weather service's head, Jack Hayes, who had led the agency for five years, subsequently retired.

Blank reported that agency officials had operated "outside the bounds of acceptable" financial practices and disregarded complaints from employees who questioned the decision to move around millions of dollars from budgeted programs to cover expenses and shortfalls in other areas.

Administration officials also credit Blank with helping the Census Bureau complete the 2010 Census on time and under budget, netting $1.6 billion in savings.

John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable and a former Michigan governor, told reporters on Tuesday he knew Blank and had confidence in her abilities.

"She and Bryson were working well together anyway. He had kept her in the loop on everything," Engler said.

Bryson, a former CEO of California public utility Edison International, came into the administration at a time when the White House hoped to shore up relations with business leaders.

But Engler, who said Bryson had "a lot of friends on the Business Roundtable," noted he also took over the Commerce Department at a difficult time with Washington in the grips of a partisan debate that blocked progress on numerous fronts.

"I think it's been hard. I think he's been fine in the department. His public utterances and appearances have been, I think, predictable but solid," Engler said.

The sprawling bureaucracy at Commerce includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Census Bureau and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as well as other agencies devoted to promoting exports and blocking unfairly traded imports.

(For official bio of Acting Commerce Secretary Rebecca M. Blank, click: here )

(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Caren Bohan; Editing by Marilyn W. Thompson and Jan Paschal)

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