U.S. Commerce Secretary John Bryson, who was involved in a potential felony hit-and-run traffic incident Saturday night and found unconscious behind the wheel of his car in the Los Angeles area, has been no more than a virtual presence for the hard-pressed New England fishing industry in his brief tenure in the Obama Cabinet.
In October, soon after he was confirmed by the Senate and praised by Sen. John Kerry as the ideal candidate, Bryson promised Kerry to visit Massachusetts to get a firsthand view of the industry, struggling under regulations authorized by the secretary. But that visit never came off, nor was it ever rescheduled.
A former utility executive and adviser to the global private equity firm, Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts & Co., Bryson made streamlined regulation, job creation and exports his priorities in confirmation hearing testimony, but his early involvement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, drew opposition from Congressmen John Tierney and Barney Frank.
In November, Gov. Deval Patrick filed a set of socioeconomic scientific studies to make the necessary legal case for Bryson to declare that federal fisheries policies had created a job-destroying economic disaster for the state and region.
But Bryson has taken no action on the request which was upgraded from an earlier filing that was deemed to lack the necessary "new" scientific proof of a fisheries failure.
Bryson also has also taken no action on the second set of case studies assembled by a special judicial master appointed by his predecessor, Gary Locke — now the ambassador to China — of complaints by fishermen. The probe has followed up complaints that federal fisheries law enforcers within NOAA had abused their authority in bringing cases against them wrongly or by exacting exorbitant fines.
Since May 6, Bryson's office has failed to respond to inquiries by the Times about the status of the report by the special master, but Pamela Lafreniere, a New Bedford attorney with multiple clients' cases in the dossier of Special Master Charles B. Swartwood III, told the Times on May 6 that it was her understanding that Swartwood had completed his work and submitted it to Bryson.
The first report was given to then-Secretary Locke in April 2011 and after heavy redaction, the report was made public in mid-May 2011 along with a Cabinet-level apology to eight victims of prosecutorial excess in Gloucester and elsewhere, and more than $600,000 in reparations.
Swartwood's report followed a series of more general exposes of misconduct and improper uses of law enforcement authority that was uncovered by Commerce Department inspector general Todd Zinser.
In January 2012, Zinser announced he had embarked on a new project, investigating whether improper influences were at work on the decision-making apparatus within the Commerce Department — primarily at the grassroots level where regional fishery management councils, appointed by the secretary, make recommendation on policy. That probe was undertaken at the request of Tierney, whose district includes Cape Ann, and Frank, who represents New Bedford.
Over the weekend, Bryson was treated for a reported seizure after driving his luxury car into two vehicles in separate Los Angeles County accidents five minutes apart, according to Bloomberg News Service.
Bryson, 68, was found unconscious at the wheel of his Lexus about 5:10 p.m. Los Angeles time on Saturday after the second of two collisions, police in Los Angeles said today. He suffered a seizure, was taken to a hospital where he remained overnight, Jennifer Friedman, a Commerce Department spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement.
"He was released and has returned to Washington," Friedman said. "The investigation is ongoing." Police said they are investigating felony hit-and-run charges in the case.
The Commerce Department includes NOAA, which in turn includes the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Weather Service. The agencies have been racked with scandal in the Obama administration, NMFS for the abuse of fishermen — especially out of Gloucester, and primarily in the decade preceding the Obama presidency — but the Weather Service last month had its chief resign after the Senate learned that the agency had been improperly moving funds into payroll from accounts geared toward forecasting technology and equipment.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Mark Pope said authorities were told Bryson "suffers from a pre-existing medical condition," according to ABC News Radio.
Bryson's Lexus rear-ended a Buick that had stopped about 5:05 p.m. Saturday to wait for a train to clear the four-lane road in San Gabriel, Calif., Steve Whitmore, a Los Angeles County sheriff spokesman, said in an interview. Occupants in the Buick spoke to Bryson and said he "appeared disoriented," San Gabriel Police Lt. Ariel Duran said. Bryson struck the vehicle a second time as he left the scene, prompting the Buick's driver to follow and call the 911 emergency line.
After driving south for about 1.9 miles past gasoline stations, Bryson struck another vehicle, causing minor injuries to the passengers. He was found alone and unconscious at the scene by police. There is no indication alcohol or drugs were involved, police said.
Conviction on a felony hit-and-run charge can result in at least a year in state prison, the police said.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-238-7000, x3464, or at email@example.com.