WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Commerce Secretary John Bryson, under investigation for his role in two car crashes in California over the weekend that aides linked to a seizure, said on Monday he will take an immediate medical leave of absence.
Neither Bryson, 68, nor the White House disclosed any new information in separate statements about his apparent illness other than to say he will undergo tests and evaluation.
The leave is indefinite and a Commerce Department official said Bryson would consult with doctors on his next steps.
“I notified President (Barack) Obama this evening that 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 an internal agency memo released by his office.
Rebecca Blank, Bryson’s deputy, will serve as acting secretary of the agency that oversees several federal agencies and focuses on business issues, the agency said.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said that “the president’s thoughts are with Secretary Bryson and his family during this time.”
Obama said in a television interview earlier in the day the administration was working to find out what happened two full days after the incident but that “we’re going to make sure that he gets the best care.”
Obama was not more specific.
Bryson was hospitalized in California but returned to Washington on Monday while police continued their investigation of the bizarre events on Saturday that occurred near his Los Angeles-area home and included a suspected hit-and-run crash.
The incident immediately raised questions about Bryson’s health and his future leadership at the agency as Obama courts business leaders in his bid to win a second term in November. Carney said Obama believes Bryson has served “effectively.”
Asked whether Obama was aware that Bryson had any kind of medical condition when he selected him for office, Carney would only say: “The president nominated Secretary Bryson to serve because he felt he was capable of doing the job.”
Bryson is an energy expert and seasoned businessman. He has held the job for less than a year.
Police in southern California said Bryson was found unconscious on Saturday behind the wheel of his Lexus after crashing into the same car twice, leaving the scene and then colliding with another vehicle. At least one crash is being investigated as a felony hit-and-run.
It was not immediately clear whether the seizure led to either of the car crashes or if Bryson has been diagnosed with any underlying illnesses. A Commerce official said he had never had a seizure before.
“We cannot confirm the exact timing of the seizure, the cause of the seizure or the sequence of events,” the official said. “The secretary was driving alone and at this point he has a limited recall of the events.”
Cabinet members or other senior aides entangled in legal controversy always have the potential to cause political headaches for a president - but never more so than in the midst of a re-election campaign.
Police said so far “there is no indication that alcohol or drugs played a role in the collisions.” They added that Bryson and others were cooperative with the investigation.
The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which would handle any prosecution in this case, told Reuters that so far no charges have been formally filed.
Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Steve Whitmore said Bryson has been officially cited on suspicion of a felony hit-and-run offense in connection with the first accident.
At the site of the second collision, Bryson voluntarily took and passed a breath-based alcohol test, Whitmore said, adding that authorities are awaiting results from a more comprehensive blood test. If they come back negative, it was unlikely that Bryson would be charged in connection with the second crash.
California’s San Gabriel Police Department said in a statement that a preliminary investigation indicates Bryson caused the first crash when his Lexus rear-ended a Buick in San Gabriel on Saturday evening.
He spoke with three men in the Buick and then hit their car again when leaving the scene, police said.
The second crash took place about five minutes later in nearby Rosemead, California, when Bryson allegedly hit a Honda Accord, according to the statement, which was issued jointly by police and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Paramedics treated Bryson at the crash site, where Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s Whitmore said Bryson was found alone and unconscious. He later regained consciousness and was admitted to a local hospital.
He was given medication to treat the seizure and remained overnight for observation, Commerce’s Friedman said. Bryson was driving his own car on personal time and had no security detail at the time of the crashes, she said.
Passengers in the other cars had no major injuries, police said.
Bryson is a former chief executive of Edison International, a public utility holding company headquartered in Rosemead, and has served as Obama’s secretary of commerce since October 2011.
Business leaders and others generally praised Bryson’s appointment even as Obama experienced rocky relations with the business community during his first two years in office.
Several industry sources told Reuters that they were unaware if the secretary had any health issues.
A seizure is marked by excessive electrical activity in the brain’s neurons. Just as wild electrical bursts during a summer thunderstorm can wreak havoc with radio and television signals, so the chaotic electrical discharges in a seizing brain can knock out motor control, speech, sensory perception, consciousness, and other cortical functions.
Gholam Motamedi, a neurologist at Georgetown University Medical Center and an expert in seizures, said the most common type of seizure - a partial seizure - can last just minutes and leave people confused.
“They often last one to two minutes and then gradually they come out of it ... They’ve lost their awareness,” said Motamedi, who has no ties to Bryson or the case. “Obviously, it can be very dangerous if you’re driving.”
Experts say it is conceivable someone who has just suffered a seizure could operate a vehicle, though probably not well. That could explain how Bryson drove off, only to hit the Buick again and then the Accord.
Bryson appeared to be well enough on Thursday, when local media reports said he gave the 2012 commencement address in Pasadena, California, at the Polytechnic School, where his four daughters have graduated over the years.
As head of the Commerce Department, Bryson oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the U.S. Census Bureau. He is also responsible for administering U.S. trade laws against unfairly traded imports.
Additional reporting by Ron Grover in Los Angeles and Doug Palmer and John Crawley in Washington and Sharon Begley; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken, Eric Walsh and Lisa Shumaker