Secretary of Commerce John Bryson stepped down Monday for medical leave, hours after reports surfaced that he’d crashed his car into two others over the weekend. Aides said he suffered a seizure.
“I notified President 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,” said a statement from Bryson released by the department.
“During the period of my illness, I will not perform the functions and duties of my office.”
The Commerce Department said Deputy Secretary Dr. Rebecca Blank was taking charge immediately as acting secretary.
“Secretary Bryson assured the White House that the Commerce Department staff will not miss a beat in their work helping America’s businesses compete,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney added.
Neither the Commerce Department nor the White House responded to questions about the 68-year-old cabinet secretary’s medical condition.
The decision to step away from the department came hours after the news reached Washington that Bryson was involved in hit and run accidents Saturday afternoon around Los Angeles. The Commerce Department said Monday that Bryson had suffered a seizure and that investigations into the incident were ongoing. The department did not elaborate on his medical condition or respond to questions.
Carney said he knew little about the details by mid-day Monday.
“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.
“He was alone. He was on private time, not with a security detail. He was hospitalized. So there’s more that needs to be learned.”
Bryson was found unconscious at the scene after the three collisions, all of which occurred on Saturday around 5 p.m. in the Los Angeles area. The secretary was given medical attention following the hit-and-run incidents.
A joint release by the San Gabriel Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said Bryson crashed his Lexus into the rear of a car waiting for a train, stopped to talk to the three occupants, then hit the same car again as he departed. The three men followed Bryson as he drove into a neighboring city. He collided with another car approximately five minutes later.
“Secretary Bryson was involved in a traffic accident in Los Angeles over the weekend. He suffered a seizure,” Commerce Department spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said in a statement. “He was taken to the hospital for examination and remained overnight for observation. He was released and has returned to Washington.”
Officials of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said that Bryson had voluntarily taken a Breathalyzer test following the accidents and that the test showed zero alcohol use. They were awaiting the results of a blood test, which can be more definitive.
Bryson, who was traveling alone, was cited with the hit-and-run incidents but was taken to a hospital and not jailed.
The White House did not learn of the accident until Sunday evening, Carney said. President Obama, he said, was informed of the accident Monday morning. White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew spoke with Bryson Monday morning, Carney added.
Even as reports of the accident were made public Monday morning, one of the most prominent Republican political groups in the country pounced to suggest that Bryson was guilty of drunk driving.
“How does @CommerceSec have 3 car crashes in 5 minutes and alcohol NOT be involved? #Skills,” the group American Crossroads said in a tweet.
American Crossroads is a political action committee founded by Karl Rove, the top political adviser to former President George W. Bush who now raises millions form private contributors to finance pro-Republican, anti-Democratic TV ads.
The tweet caused a whirlwind of attention.
American Crossroads apologized later Monday morning for the hasty accusation, about the same time the Commerce Department said Bryson had suffered from a seizure.
The group subsequently deleted the post, saying, “Earlier Bryson tweet with hashtag #skills attempted levity (before facts known) and failed miserably. We took it down and regret the tweet.”