Originally created 12/21/96

Pena moves from one hot seat to another with shift to Energy Department



WASHINGTON (AP) - In shifting Cabinet jobs, Federico Pena moves from one hot seat to another, turning his focus from airline and highway safety to nuclear disposal and the nation's energy supply.

Pena had drawn criticism for his defense of the safety of ValuJet after that airline's May crash in Florida, and some critics found him too eager to promote the aviation industry. But he also pushed through changes in regulation bringing commuter airlines under the same strict safety rules that apply to large carriers.

He had appeared on his way out of the administration until late Thursday night.

Indeed, he joked at a briefing Friday, "I'm sorry I'm late; I was busy taking down a `for sale' sign in front of my house."

When Pena, who is 49, originally announced his plan to leave office, he said White House chief of staff Leon Panetta had asked him to remain or consider other positions but he and his wife "decided it was best for us to move on to the next phase of our lives."

Two weeks ago Vice President Gore renewed the request to stay, and this week both Gore and Clinton pressed Pena to remain in the administration.

He asked for time to consult with his wife. Fifteen minutes later the White House was on the phone again and Pena eventually said that, if asked, he would accept the energy post.

The offer came at 10 p.m. Thursday and he accepted.

Immediate reaction was favorable from a variety of viewpoints.

Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, D-W.Va., a member of both the House Resources and Transportation committees, said that as transportation secretary Pena "advanced an agenda of energy efficiency by promoting the coordination of various transportation modes. This is the type of thinking that will be necessary when advancing national energy policies."

The Safe Energy Communications Council expressed "cautious optimism" about the choice.

"In his background we are pleased to note he was supportive of renewable fuel technologies while he was mayor in Denver. There is a sense here he would be supportive of ... a gradual shift toward sustainable technologies," said Scott Denman, spokesman for the group that includes such organizations as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club.

Julie Stewart of the American Gas Association said her organization has worked closely with Pena on pipeline issues, which the Transportation Department regulates.

"He has a reputation as a very good administrator, which be good for DOE," she said.

Pena "has a reputation as an effective leader within the administration and on the hill," added Tim Brown of the Electric Generation Association.

Pena himself said after the announcement, "Both departments were put together by bringing disparate entities under one umbrella. ... The president wants me to use the same kind of organizational skills at DOE as at Transportation."

After two terms as the high-profile mayor of Denver, Pena was picked four years ago to head the Transportation Department, where he earned a reputation as a fast learner, interested in everything and unafraid to make changes.

He pushed through a remodeling of the troubled Federal Aviation Administration, winning congressional approval for the agency to develop its own hiring and purchasing rules to speed change.

A tireless traveler, Pena negotiated international aviation agreements with 41 nations during his term, pressing for increased freedom for airlines to serve markets.

And, during his tenure, Pena cut the size of his department by some 11,000 employees.

He was born in Laredo, Texas, and is a graduate of the University of Texas where he also gained a law degree. He moved to Denver where he formed a law partnership with his brother, Alfredo.

In 1978 he won a seat in the Colorado House of Representatives and became minority speaker in 1980. In 1983 he ousted 14-year Mayor William McNichols.