By Richard Gaines
Facing possible felony hit-and-run charges for a chain of traffic mishaps ending with him unconscious behind the wheel of his car in the Los Angeles area near his home, Commerce Secretary John Bryson has taken a medical leave of absence.
Bryson notified President Obama of his decision late Monday. Bryson was hospitalized late Saturday, but was released within hours and he was back in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank assumed authority at the department and, at least for now, has sign-off authority on a number of important fisheries decisions directly affecting Gloucester and other New England ports.
These include a long pending disaster declaration request filed by Gov. Deval Patrick for the Massachusetts groundfishery, which has been hemorrhaging jobs under a new management regimen and hard catch limits mandated by Congress.
In addition, the secretary is believed to have on his desk the second major report on case studies of fishermen wronged by NOAA law enforcement. As many as 60 cases were under investigation by a special judicial master appointed by Bryson's predecessor, Gary Locke, now ambassador to China.
After the May 2011 release of the first master's report, Locke issued an apology and reparations to eight victims of justice miscarried.
The Secretary of Commerce is the official of record on matters covered by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the superstructure for the nation's fisheries. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric and Administration and its subdivision, the National Marine Fisheries Service, both fall under the wing of the Department of Commerce.
Last November, Patrick filed with Bryson a brace of new socioeconomic studies purporting to show that "catch shares have had a devastating impact on the commonwealth's groundfish fishery,"
"Federal regulations and management policies have caused a significant consolidation of the groundfish fleet, loss of jobs and reduced revenues — all of which have combined to create a fisheries resource disaster," the governor wrote.
He asked for $21 million in disaster aid. But despite Patrick's becoming vice chairman of the Obama reelection campaign in January, Bryson has taken no action on the disaster filing.
Bryson, who helped found the Natural Resources Defense Council and had been a utility executive in California for two decades and an advisor to the legendary private equity giant, Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts was appointed to replace Gary Locke as Commerce secretary when Locke was named ambassador to China.
Locke was confirmed last July, and until Bryson's confirmation in October, Deputy Secretary Blank was acting secretary.
After his confirmation, Bryson pledged to U.S. Sen. John Kerry that he would visit Massachusetts to get a firsthand view of the fisheries' issues but, while traveling extensively internationally, he never made the visit here.
Since the three traffic collisions last Saturday — two with the same car — none seemingly serious, Saturday afternoon while he was driving alone outside Los Angeles, little hard information about the events has come out.
Bryson has described his collisions as resulting in or from a "seizure" and characterized his problem as an "illness" in his memo to the President Obama, explaining his decision to take a leave of absence.
Bryson's driving involved minor collisions. Police have not implied that alcohol or drugs were involved, but have not ruled out any cause for the bizarre incidents.
The Commerce Department declined Tuesday to provide Bryson's salary or say whether his leave was paid or unpaid.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000 x3464, or email@example.com.