Former assistant Navy secretary George A. Sawyer was cleared yesterday of charges that he concealed his job interviews with a major defense contractor during his final months in the Pentagon.

Sawyer, now a vice president of that firm, General Dynamics Corp., broke into a broad grin as a federal jury in Alexandria announced it had found him not guilty of violating two provisions of the federal conflict-of-interest law.

"The system worked . . . I have been vindicated as I thought I would be," said the former Reagan administration appointee.

Sawyer, 54, who was in charge of the Navy's shipbuilding program from 1981 to June 1983, was accused of failing to disclose that he traveled to St. Louis, New York and Chicago in the spring of 1983 for job interviews with General Dynamics and of deliberately failing to report he received $833 from the firm for his expenses on the trips. Had he been convicted, Sawyer could have been sentenced to up to five years in prison and fined $10,000 on each count.

At the time of his indictment in October, Sawyer said it was a product of "intense political pressure . . . on the Justice Department to take some action against General Dynamics." Yesterday, as he left the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Sawyer declined to elaborate. "It's past history," he said.

"Justice has been served," Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr. said through a spokesman. "For me, George's innocence has never been in doubt."

Lehman, who had recruited Sawyer for his Pentagon job, testified Monday that Sawyer had told him he was seeking outside employment in the spring of 1983 and that he immediately removed Sawyer from any policy-making while he was job hunting.

The Navy secretary praised his former assistant in court, crediting him with "revolutionizing" the service's shipbuilding contracting and producing billions of dollars in savings as it was expanding the fleet to 600 ships.

Lehman's testimony, along with that of several other government witnesses, appeared to help Sawyer's defense more than the government's case during the two-day trial. When the trial resumed yesterday morning, Sawyer's lawyers announced that they were resting their case after calling only one witness Monday on Sawyer's behalf.

"You all saw the government's case collapse yesterday right before your very eyes," Sawyer's attorney Terrence O'Donnell told the 12-member jury in his summation.

The government's presentation Monday also appeared to have left U.S. District Judge Richard L. Williams unconvinced that the charges against Sawyer were supported by evidence. Although he rejected a defense motion for acquittal, Williams told Sawyer's lawyers he would probably be sympathetic to any motion to set aside a conviction if the jury found their client guilty.

Asked why the government had called Lehman, who had to cancel a trip to Antarctica to testify, prosecutor Tom Hamilton said: "He was a player. Secretary Lehman had information to offer. We don't pick and choose who has information to offer. We present them."

Hamilton is working with a Connecticut federal grand jury investigating allegations of overpricing on nuclear-powered submarines that General Dynamics' General Boat Division builds in Groton. Sawyer's indictment in Alexandria stemmed from the Connecticut investigation.

Much of the testimony in the trial centered on what constitutes job "negotiations." Sawyer's lawyers contended he held no negotiations, which a government witness defined as talks covering salary, position and geographic location, with General Dynamics until the end of May 1983.

The difference between that and Sawyer's earlier talks, which were covered by the indictment, was akin "to the difference between dating and getting engaged," O'Donnell told the jury.

Sawyer did not report $833 in travel costs paid by General Dynamics as gratuities on his federal disclosure form because "no one would consider air tickets for a job interview as gifts," O'Donnell said.

Citing testimony from a Navy lawyer, Hamilton had argued that "mutual interest" was the "keystone to negotiations . . . . There was mutual interest [as early as March 1983] in Mr. Sawyer being employed by General Dynamics."

He said Sawyer had discussed with Navy lawyers what constituted job negotiations and therefore was "expected to make full disclosure" of his dealings with General Dynamics.