Who’s He?

Missing Clues in Commerce Secretary’s Hit and Run

John Bryson’s bizarre hit-and-run thrusts a little-noticed cabinet member into the spotlight. Aram Roston and Christine Pelisek on the environmentalist CEO, who is stepping back after the incident.

06.11.12 10:02 PM ET

Before news broke that John Bryson had allegedly crashed his Lexus into another car in a hit-and-run accident in California this weekend, he’d been a little-noticed member of Barack Obama’s cabinet.

The white-haired, 68 year old Bryson took over as Commerce Secretary in October last year and he’s a bit of a paradox: an environmental activist who has been through a few lucrative corporate revolving doors. The Department of Commerce core mission is promoting U.S. business, and Bryson’s business resume is substantial: He was a director of corporate behemoths, such as Boeing and Disney, and he was adviser to the legendary leveraged buyout firm Kravis Kohlberg Roberts.

He appears to be a millionaire many times over. His financial disclosure forms, filed with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, show that he had somewhere between $6 million and $30 million in bank accounts at Goldman Sachs as of 2011, and millions more in other investments, including $8 million in stock options from the California electric company he ran.

Late Monday, two days after the bizarre incident, the Department of Commerce announced Bryson, one of the top government officials in the US, was taking a leave of absence. "I am taking a medical leave of absence," he told his deputy, according to a department press release, "so that I can focus all of my attention on resolving the health issues that arose over the weekend." Department of Commerce spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman on Monday afternoon had emailed a statement to The Daily Beast saying “the Secretary was driving alone and at this point he has a limited recall of the events.” Though the statement says Bryson suffered a seizure, “We cannot confirm the exact timing of the seizure, the cause of the seizure or the sequence of events.” Alcohol and drugs, said Friedman, were not involved.

The preliminary release from authorities in San Gabriel, California, says the June 9 incident is under investigation “as a felony hit and run.” “Suspect John Bryson,” according to the account, twice rear-ended a Buick on Saturday at 5:05 p.m. as it was stopped waiting for a train. Bryson spoke to three men in the car, according to the release, and then drove off, after hitting the same car again. Police said Bryson hit another car five minutes later, and “was found alone and unconscious behind the wheel of his vehicle.”

According to Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department spokesperson Steve Whitmore, when Bryson came to he was cooperative, and passed a Breathalyzer test. Deputies also administered a blood test to check for drugs and alcohol, but the results won’t be available for a couple of days, Whitmore said. Still, San Gabriel authorities have said there is no indication any drugs or alcohol were involved.

"There is nothing about John that is consistent with leaving a scene of an accident. He's held every conceivable position of trust in private and public sectors,” said Ralph Cavanagh, energy program co-director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which Bryson co-founded in 1970. “He has five lovely daughters. He's an extraordinarily likeable, affable individual. I don't think John has an enemy in the world.”

Before taking over Commerce in October of 2011, Bryson had crawled to the top of the corporate food chain on an unconventional ladder. Bryson graduated from Yale Law School during the activist era of the 60s and became an environmental lawyer. “When he got out of Yale Law School in1969,” says NRDC spokesman Bob Deans, “he could have gone to any white shoe law firm and done extremely well for himself.”

Instead, Bryson joined up with a young man named John Adams, and they co-founded the NRDC. This was back before the Environmental Protection Agency existed, back when some of America’s rivers practically ran with poison. Ohio’s Cuyahoga River famously caught fire the same year Bryson graduated from Yale.

“At that time,” Deans says, “there really was no body of environmental law.” He says Bryson and Adams “looked at what the leaders of the civil rights movement had been doing, and they tried to take a page from that. In those early years, that’s when we saw the Clean Water Act pass, the Clean Air Act pass, the National Environmental Policy act was passed.”

Deans says Bryson is a “giant” of the environmental movement. “John Bryson was there at the creation of the landmark environmental legislation that protects our environment now.”

Soon, Bryson left the burgeoning NRDC and entered state government in California under the progressive administration of Jerry Brown (now governor again). Brown named Bryson as the chairman of the agency that regulations power and water companies in California.

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Two years after resigning that post, he began working for California’s Edison electric utility, and he was promoted in to its CEO in 1990. He drew some criticism during his tenure there, including a Wall Street Journal story in 1999 alleging that Bryson and his utility “are often decried as laggards on environmental issues.”

It was in 2011 that Bryson was nominated as the Commerce secretary. There are, as one former commerce official observes, two models for the job: the successful efficient CEO, on the one hand, and the charismatic politician on the other. The official, who declined to be named, says Bryson was the first: “I wouldn’t say bland, so much, but he’s not a glad-hander, like a former party chairman or a former governor.”

Some Republicans decried Bryson’s nomination, with Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming calling him an “environmental extremist.”

Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) called Bryson “a founder of a radical environmental organization.”

Bryson now runs a sprawling department with a $7.6 billion budget. While the main mission is promoting U.S. business, the department stitches together a wide variety of federal organization. It oversees the National Weather Service, manages fisheries, and organizes the census. “Commerce has always been an odd duck,” says Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at New York University, ”because you have a number of agencies in there that don't adhere.”

Bryson’s alleged hit and run accident may be making him a well-known name in Washington now.