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Lee Liberman Otis’ father was a utility lawyer. And when she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the 1980s, she handled energy suits among a wide mix of administrative cases. But that is the extent of the energy law experience Otis brings to her new job as general counsel of the Department of Energy — an agency with a quiltlike collection of responsibilities that includes cleaning up old nuclear weapons plants, spurring the production of resources like oil and gas, providing data on trends in energy pricing and use, and safeguarding the nation’s nuclear weapons supply. Otis, 45, now heads up the 150-person general counsel’s office, a position in which she says “there is never a dull moment.” And though Otis admits that there are still “a lot of acronyms I don’t know,” she thinks her government experience will help her adjust to the new job. “The range of things the department is involved in is so broad,” says Otis. “So although I do feel there are a lot of things that I am learning about, I think anyone who came to this job would have things they would have to learn about. I don’t feel really that I am at a disadvantage compared to someone who would come in with a lifetime of experience in energy law.” What Otis does bring to the job is her extensive Washington experience and her firmly established Republican credentials. She helped found the Federalist Society while a law student at the University of Chicago, worked for Justice Antonin Scalia at the Supreme Court, helped pick judges for the elder President George Bush, and worked on immigration issues at the Senate Judiciary Committee. She has also managed to squeeze in time at the Justice Department, and short stints in private practice and as a professor at George Mason University. “Lee was someone you could always count on [to give] her honest view,” says John Schmitz, who worked with her in the White House counsel’s office. Schmitz, now a partner at Mayer, Brown & Platt, said Otis’ colleagues would frequently seek her advice on tricky legal problems and ethical issues. “Lee was particularly gifted in being able to give something serious attention and resist the temptation to please.” Otis is a behind-the-scenes operator, one who friends say does not seek the limelight. The only time she has garnered any significant notoriety is during her time as judicial point woman in the first Bush White House. Liberals criticized her as a conservative ideologue who backed right-wing judges. Immediately after the election, some speculated that Otis would end up back in a judge picking role. Otis says she considered working at the Justice Department, but in the immigration area. Then former Sen. Spencer Abraham, R-Mich., whom Otis has known since they both attended the University of Chicago and who was her Senate boss for six years, was picked as energy secretary. “Basically the secretary really wanted me to come here,” she says. “And when he gets an idea like that, it does not turn out to be very easy to say no.” To environmentalists and many in the energy bar, Otis is an unknown quantity. She is clearly a conservative, and clearly a close friend and philosophical ally of Abraham. Now the question is where will she end up on DOE’s big issues. Among the areas Otis is working on: the Bush energy plan; nuclear waste storage at the proposed site in Yucca Mountain, Nev.; a reassessment of Clinton era air-conditioning efficiency standards and related litigation; and an examination of the regulations for new power plants or improvements to older ones that Energy is working on with the Environmental Protection Agency. Many of her friends and colleagues say Otis will be pivotal in whatever the agency accomplishes. “I think she has such a marvelous way of working with people — telling you something that you don’t want to hear, but that you need to learn,” says C. Boyden Gray, who was Otis’ boss when he was White House counsel to the former President Bush, and who is now a partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering. “I think she will make a big difference in how the energy plan is accepted.”

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