Officials: US commerce secretary suffered seizure

Posted June 11, 2012, at 5:44 p.m.

SAN GABRIEL, Calif. — Medical records could determine whether U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson will be charged in two weekend fender-benders that led to his hospitalization after police found him slumped behind the wheel of his vehicle in the Los Angeles suburbs.

Bryson suffered a seizure Saturday afternoon, Commerce Department officials said Monday, but it wasn’t clear whether the medical episode preceded or followed a hit-and-run collision.

The incident drew attention because of possible health concerns involving a member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, as well as the challenge investigators face when trying to determine if someone should be held criminally responsible because of adverse health.

Bryson, 68, 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.

Bryson then caused a second collision in the nearby city of Rosemead, striking a car occupied by a man and a woman, authorities said. Bryson was found alone and unconscious in his car.

White House chief of staff Jack Lew spoke to Bryson on Monday, press secretary Jay Carney said. Carney said the administration was in the process of gathering information about the incidents.

“We’re obviously concerned about the incident, about the health-related issues that played a role in this incident,” Carney said.

Authorities did not know whether Bryson had a prior medical condition.

The Commerce Department said Bryson was on personal time and did not have a security detail at the time of the accidents. He was driving his own vehicle and was given medication to treat the seizure.

Bryson voluntarily took a Breathalyzer test following the crashes that didn’t detect any alcohol, but investigators also were awaiting the results from a blood test, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker.

Bryson was treated at the scene before being taken to a hospital. Two people in the first collision were treated by paramedics after complaining of pain, authorities said. The couple involved in the second crash also complained of pain but declined medical aid.

The case was being reviewed by sheriff’s investigators and will likely 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.

Bryson has returned to Washington, Commerce Department spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said.

Defense attorney Steve Meister said although having a seizure doesn’t necessarily mean Bryson committed a crime, authorities will be examining why the crashes happened.

“It’s difficult to assign criminal liability when someone was medically unconscious,” Meister said. “They have to be aware what was happening.”

Meister said he has represented people who have been involved in crashes while having seizures. He recalled how one woman struck another vehicle and didn’t remember anything that transpired.

No one was injured, but the woman was arrested for investigation of driving under the influence because she was acting disoriented, Meister said. The woman didn’t have any drugs or alcohol in her system, but she pleaded to a misdemeanor crime.

“It turns out she had a history (of seizures),” Meister said. “If I was his (Bryson’s) lawyer, I would try to find all the evidence there was to back up what he’s already said.”

Some medical experts said 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 last week to deliver the commencement address Thursday at Pasadena Polytechnic School, where his four children attended. The school said in a statement that he urged students to pursue their passions, to serve their country, and to value their education and friendships.

Obama swore in the former utility executive as the head of 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 worked to promote job creation. He has advised on energy issues, particularly in the clean energy sector.

Bryson is the former head of Edison International, the holding company that owns Southern California Edison. Bryson 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.

Meister believes the case will be sent to prosecutors for review.

“It will ensure a full investigation because no one will want to be accused of sweeping this under the rug,” he said. “If there is a reject (of charges), the sheriff will want the DA to share in the responsibility of that decision.”

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Dillon reported from San Gabriel, Calif.; Risling reported from Los Angeles. AP Science writer Alicia Chang contributed to this report.

 

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