The new president of a maritime union torn by a shipboard engineers' drive for independence said he would consider granting it to them if a majority of the engineers favor it.

In his first interview since being named president of the National Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, Alexander C. Cullison firmly rejected actions and policies of his predecessor, C.E. "Gene" DeFries, as "part of the past."But he denied that Mr. DeFries' resignation Monday was the result of an internal union powerplay or in reaction to a federal investigation of the actions of Mr. DeFries and other union officials during the 1988 membership referendum.

The referendum approved the merger between District No. 1 of MEBA and the National Maritime Union.

"He resigned for his own personal reasons, and not the politics or the political pressure," said Mr. Cullison. "He wanted to give me an opportunity to start new, so I wouldn't have to deal with a lot of the baggage from the past."

"These investigations are going to continue," he added. "They (the government) can do the same thing whether he's retired or not."

Mr. Cullison sailed as a marine engineer from 1975 to 1978. He was elected branch agent in Houston in 1988 but lost a bid for re-election to that post in 1990. In December, he was appointed trustee of the union's licensed division for shipboard engineers after hundreds of engineers voted to form an independent union, District No. 1-PCD.

Last Friday, Mr. Cullison was named president of District No. 1/MEBA-NMU, and on Monday he was elected president of National MEBA by the union's National Executive Committee.

Mr. Cullison defeated Ray McKay, president of MEBA District No. 2, which represents officers on the Great Lakes and some Military Sealift Command vessels.

Mr. McKay is an ally of Gordon M. Ward, president of District No. 1-PCD, and was one of five maritime union presidents who signed a statement supporting Mr. Ward's group when it declared independence from MEBA/NMU.

"I'm extending the olive branch to them . . . I'm not carved in stone on anything," Mr. Cullison said about Mr. Ward and Mr. McKay.

In contrast to Mr. DeFries, Mr. Cullison expressed a willingness to consider an independent status for the engineers. How that happens "should be in the form of multiple proposals from the membership," who need to understand the "risks, the downside" of any reorganization, he said.

Mark Zalenski, a spokesman for Mr. Ward, rejected Mr. Cullison's offer as an act of desperation by "someone who will do whatever he can for self- preservation."

"This is a man who at every turn has lied to us," Mr. Zalenski said. "He is without legitimacy."

Mr. Zalenski spoke from a union hall in Baltimore where 80 engineers had gathered for a District No. 1 PCD meeting. "This is where the membership is," he said. "That's what Cullison has to deal with . . . The real problem is the structure of District No. 1/MEBA-NMU."

Mr. Zalenski said the District No. 1 referendum - which the Ward group charges will be manipulated by the union to push through the merger - is ''meaningless from our point of view."

In the interview, Mr. Cullison argued that the Ward group should begin a dialogue with him because some of the key issues that led to the dispute between the engineers and Mr. DeFries "are gone," he said.

Those issues involved the plans to merge the MEBA and NMU pension plans ("there will never be a merger"); and the secret $2 million taken by Mr. DeFries and four officials in severance and pension payments while keeping their jobs.

"There will never be a severance payment given to any union official on my watch," Mr. Cullison said. "What we need to do is enable the membership to have a voice in these issues."

Adopting this new policy did not represent a repudiation of Mr. DeFries, Mr. Cullison argued. "I'm not condemning him (DeFries) for taking it (the payment)," he said. "I'm just saying, I'm not going to do it."

Mr. Cullison said he was eager to run in an election against Mr. Ward. "I don't think they (the Ward group) are speaking for many marine engineers," he said.