Retired Adm. Hyman G. Rickover, saying "my conscience is clear," reported yesterday that almost all of the $67,628 in gifts he is accused of receiving from General Dynamics Corp. was given to supporters of the nuclear Navy, including presidents and members of Congress.
In an official rebuttal to a letter of censure filed against him May 21 by Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., Rickover offered, for the first time, his defense that he "never considered or treated these items as personal gifts."
He acknowledged, however, receiving "certain items" from General Dynamics from 1961 to 1977, but said he kept only a pair of diamond earrings and a jade pendant bought for his wife for $1,125. Rickover said he gave everything else away -- some items to presidents, others to members of Congress and their staffs, to "dedicated and hard-working" submarine crew members and to his office personnel.
Without naming the recipients, he said the "true value of these trinkets" was to remind them "that yet another milestone in the development of the nuclear Navy had been achieved, ensuring the continued security and well-being of our country."
In his rebuttal to Lehman, Rickover also said, "I can state emphatically that no gratuity or favor ever affected any decision I made."
His statement came five days after the Navy released the report of its gratuities board listing hundreds of items and services that Rickover received from General Dynamics and accusing him of having been the "beneficiary of this longstanding pattern and practice of corporate largess."
Charging that Rickover displayed a "lack of appreciation for the proper standards" governing U.S. officials, the board detailed how General Dynamics curried favor by providing him chauffeur and steward services as well as gifts including plastic shower curtains, mahogany boxes, fruit knives and jewelry.
Rickover said his receipt of gifts deserves to be "placed in the proper context," and he focused on the special considerations General Dynamics accorded hinm during its submarine sea trials, a ritual that became know as "rigging for Rickover." Citing a "Navy practice of long standing" for the commanding officer to make special arrangements for visiting dignitaries, he said the "provisions and supplies for those sea trials, alleged as gratuities, were used and consumed not only by me but also by the dedicated Navy men and women who served on these ships."
"If General Dynamics had not provided the provisions, the Navy, and ultimately the taxpayers, would have had to," he added.
Rickover failed, however, to explain why he allowed General Dynamics to have his civilian suits cleaned and pressed, lay out khaki uniforms for him before sea trials, supply him with electric toothbrushes and best-selling books, and package the excess fresh fish for him to take home after each outing.
Rickover also defended his use of General Dynamics chauffeurs to drive him to the Electric Boat shipyard in Groton, Conn., for the "official business" of inspecting submarine construction there.
"Was I to walk?" asked Rickover, 85, who retired in 1982 after a 62-year naval career. "If General Dynamics had not provided the transportation, the government would have had to."
Rickover fails to explain why he allowed company drivers to transport his son's belongings at Yale University to the home of a General Dynamics executive in Groton, transport him and his son from a boys camp in New England to Groton and deliver a piece of wood crafted at Electric Boat's workshop to his son at Yale.
Rickover emphasized, however, as he has before, that any favor by General Dynamics did not influence his judgment on awarding or amending contracts or evaluating the company's performance.
"In fact, the record will show that I have been consistently tougher on defense contractors than any government official at any time," he said.