Commerce Secretary's Crashes Raise Questions

Commerce Secretary John Bryson previously had a very low profile in the Obama administration. That is, until Monday when new broke that he has been cited for felony hit-and-run after two car crashes over the weekend.

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A member of the Cabinet is under investigation for a series of auto accidents in California. Commerce Secretary John Bryson allegedly hit a car that was stopped at a railroad crossing on Saturday, then hit it again as he drove off. Later, Bryson allegedly hit a second vehicle. He was found unconscious in his car.

Police say there's no indication that drugs or alcohol played a role, and no one was seriously hurt. The Commerce Department says Bryson suffered a seizure, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: This is not the kind of news the White House wanted to wake up to this morning.

ARIEL DURAN: Preliminary investigation indicates the collision was caused by suspect John Bryson, who is the United States secretary of Commerce.

HORSLEY: It's never a good sign when a police lieutenant - like Ariel Duran of San Gabriel, California - uses the words Cabinet secretary and suspect in the same sentence. Duran says the Commerce secretary was driving his own Lexus through the Los Angeles County community on Saturday evening when he rear-ended a Buick with three men inside.

DURAN: Bryson spoke with the males, then left the scene, hitting the same car again as he left the scene. The three males followed him in their car while calling San Gabriel Police.

HORSLEY: By the time sheriff's deputies caught up with Bryson, he'd allegedly struck a second car and passed out. A terse statement from the Commerce Department says Bryson suffered a seizure. Keith Black, who chairs the neurosurgery department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, says the account is consistent with what doctors call a partial complex seizure.

DR. KEITH BLACK: You can have confusion; you may have some difficulty with language or speech; but still be able to function with a car, and operate a car, and carry on a conversation prior to the onset of a full-blown, grand mal-type seizure, where you would lose consciousness.

HORSLEY: Bryson spent the night in a hospital, where he was given medication for the seizure. He's now back in Washington, where administration spokesman Jay Carney says Bryson spoke this morning with the White House chief of staff.

JAY CARNEY: We're, obviously, concerned about the incident; concerned about Secretary Bryson's health-related issues that played a role in this incident; and we're still gathering information about it.

HORSLEY: The White House is also concerned that it only learned about the accidents Sunday evening, about 24 hours after they happened.

CARNEY: Whenever a senior official is involved in an incident of this nature - or any kind of an incident like it - it's, obviously, important that the White House find out about it.

HORSLEY: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was furious last year when the FAA administrator, Randy Babbitt, was arrested for alleged drunk driving - and said nothing until a police report was issued 36 hours later.

In this case, Carney says the delay may be justified since Bryson was hospitalized, and had no security detail with him. Before he became Commerce secretary last year, Bryson was a utility executive in Southern California, and a co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In L.A. last week, he gave the graduation speech at the school his daughters used to attend, Pasadena Polytechnic. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The correct name is Polytechnic School. It's located in Pasadena, California.] The head of the school, Debbie Reed, says he showed no signs of ill health.

DEBBIE REED: He went into the gym to greet the seniors, and shook the hand of every student, and then spoke for - I would guess about 12 or 15 minutes.

HORSLEY: Bryson urged the students to pursue their passion, value education, and serve their country. Asked about Bryson's own fitness to keep serving as Commerce secretary today, White House spokesman Carney was noncommittal.

CARNEY: I can simply say that the president, when he nominated Mr. Bryson to be Commerce secretary, believed that he was capable of serving as Commerce secretary and, in fact, Secretary Bryson has served effectively as Commerce secretary since he was confirmed.

HORSLEY: The Commerce Department says Bryson has no prior history of seizures, though ABC reports he did pass out during a meeting once, while serving as a director of the Boeing Corporation.

Dr. Black says a seizure is certainly not an automatic disqualification from Cabinet duty - though in California, it can be grounds for at least a temporary loss of one's driver's license.

Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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