KEN THOMAS and RAQUEL DILLON
WASHINGTON (AP) - Commerce Secretary John Bryson is taking a medical leave of absence to undergo tests after suffering a seizure connected to two traffic accidents in the Los Angeles area over the weekend.
Bryson informed President Barack Obama on Monday that he was taking a medical leave "so that I can focus all of my attention on resolving the health issues that arose over the weekend," according to a statement released by the department. Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank will serve as acting commerce secretary in Bryson's absence.
Bryson did not specify how long he would remain on leave but said he would not perform the functions and duties of the office "during the period of my illness." White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement that Obama's thoughts were with Bryson and his family.
The 68-year-old former utility executive struck a car stopped for a train twice on Saturday afternoon and then hit another vehicle with his car a few minutes later in a nearby community. He was found unconscious in his car, and government officials said Monday he had had a seizure.
Bryson had not suffered a seizure previously, according to a department official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the secretary's medical history. It was not clear whether the medical episode preceded or followed the collisions. Bryson has a "limited recall of the events," the official said.
Bryson's leave represented the latest change at the Commerce Department, which includes agencies as diverse as the Census Bureau and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Obama's first pick to run the department was former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who withdrew from consideration because of a federal investigation into how his political donors won contracts in his state. Obama then nominated New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, but he also withdrew his name, saying he realized he had "irresolvable conflicts" with the president's economic policies.
The president finally found success with Gary Locke, the former Washington state governor. Locke served as commerce secretary until 2011, when Obama asked him to move to China to become the U.S. ambassador. Obama then tapped Bryson, an energy executive, to fill the post.
Authorities said Bryson was driving alone in a Lexus in San Gabriel, a community of about 40,000 northeast of Los Angeles, when he struck the rear of a vehicle that had stopped for a passing train, authorities said. He spoke briefly with the three occupants and then hit their car again as he departed, investigators said. They followed him while calling police.
Bryson was cited for felony hit-and-run, although he has not been charged. The secretary then struck a second car in the nearby city of Rosemead, where he was found unconscious in his car, authorities said.
Bryson returned to Washington after a brief hospital stay, department spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said.
Officials said Bryson was not on government business, was driving a personal car and did not have a security detail at the time.
He took a Breathalyzer test that didn't detect any alcohol, but investigators were awaiting the results from a blood test, said Los Angeles County sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker.
Commerce officials said he was given medication to treat the seizure. Paramedics treated two people in the first collision for pain, but a couple involved in the second crash declined medical aid.
The case was being reviewed by sheriff's investigators and will probably be submitted to prosecutors in the coming days.
"In most cases, it is presented to the DA's office to make a decision," sheriff's Lt. Margarito Robles said.
Defense attorney Steve Meister, who has represented people who have been involved in crashes while having seizures, said: "It's difficult to assign criminal liability when someone was medically unconscious. They have to be aware what was happening."
The episode is consistent with someone who has suffered a series of epileptic seizures, said Dr. Jerome Engel Jr., a neurologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is not involved in Bryson's care.
After a seizure, a person is often confused, and that state of confusion can last for a while.
"You may even seem to be alert and awake, but you're not really behaving normally," Engel said.
Under California law, a doctor has to report a patient who complains of lapses of consciousness or whose epileptic seizures pose an impairment to driving. In those cases, a person can't drive unless he's been seizure-free for three months.
Bryson had been in California to deliver the commencement address Thursday at Pasadena Polytechnic School, which his four children attended. The K-12 school said he urged students to pursue their passions, to serve their country and to value their education and friendships.
Bryson was sworn in to lead the Commerce Department in October after easily overcoming conservatives' objections that his pro-environmental views made him unsuited for the job.
As secretary, Bryson is a member of the president's economic team and has advised on energy issues. He is the former head of Edison International, the holding company that owns Southern California Edison, and has served on boards of major corporations, including the Boeing Co. and the Walt Disney Co.
He helped oversee Edison's transformation into a leading wind and solar company and launched a plan to turn 65 million square feet of unused commercial rooftops into solar power stations with enough electricity for more than 160,000 homes.