WASHINGTON/LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Commerce Secretary John Bryson is being investigated for his role in two car crashes - including a hit-and-run accident - near his Los Angeles-area home over the weekend that department officials linked to a seizure that left him unconscious behind the wheel.
Bryson, who oversees several federal agencies and focuses on business issues, was hospitalized in California but returned to Washington on Monday while police continued their probe, said Commerce Department spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman.
President Barack Obama is concerned about Bryson’s health and “broadly about the incident” and believes he has functioned “effectively” in his post, said White House spokesman Jay Carney, who brushed aside questions on whether Bryson remained fit to serve.
The incident raises questions about Bryson’s health and his future leadership at the agency as Obama is courting business leaders in his bid to win a second term in November.
Asked whether Obama was aware that Bryson had any kind of medical condition when he picked him, Carney would only say: “The president nominated Secretary Bryson to serve because he felt he was capable of doing the job.”
Bryson, an energy expert and seasoned businessman, 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, 68, 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.
White House chief of staff Jack Lew spoke to Bryson on Monday but Obama has yet to talk to him, Carney said. “We’re still in the process of gathering information,” he told reporters. “There’s more that needs to be learned.”
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 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 and has served as Obama’s secretary of commerce since October 2011.
Business leaders and others generally praised Bryson’s appointment even as Obama had 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.
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.”
Bryson appeared to be well enough on Thursday, when local media reports said he gave the 2012 commencement address in Pasadena, California at the Polytechic 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 in Washington; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken, Marilyn W. Thompson and Christopher Wilson