A former Small Business Administration official who supported the Wedtech Corp. for a crucial $134 million Navy pontoon contract testified yesterday that he was offered a $12,000 "gift" by a Washington lobbyist who was working for Wedtech.

H. Robert Saldivar, former SBA deputy associate administrator for minority businesses, told a Senate subcommittee that he never reported the incident to SBA officials because "I never saw any money" and thought he was simply "being felt out."

Saldivar was vague about when the offer was made, but it apparently took place in 1983 or 1984, when Wedtech was seeking an extension of its minority business status while at the same time attempting to obtain a no-bid award of the pontoon contract that Navy officials had wanted to advertise for competitive bidding.

Wedtech won the contract, but, according to Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), carried it out poorly. Senate investigators said the pontoon causeways were ordered as a key element of the U.S. rapid deployment forces, designed to be carried aboard huge supply and munition ships "pre-positioned" near trouble spots around the world so that they could be quickly unloaded in a crisis.

"For two years -- in 1985 and 1986 -- we had supply ships at sea that could not be unloaded in an emergency because of Wedtech's failure to deliver pontoon causeways on schedule," Levin said at a hearing of his Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee. "In some areas of the world, we still have pre-positioned ships that are not equipped with pontoon causeways."

As a result, if a sudden crisis should develop, Levin said, "we could have soldiers in the field without tanks, without guns, without ammunition, without food -- all because the SBA and the Navy decided to give the contract and options to Wedtech."

Saldivar said he was offered the $12,000 by Stephen Denlinger, head of the Washington-based Latin American Manufacturers Association, who told him that "some of the people at Wedtech" wanted to give him a gift. "I believe he mentioned Mr. {John} Mariotta and Mr. {Mario} Moreno," Saldivar said. The two men were top Wedtech executives.

Now an official at the Veterans Administration, Saldivar said he "dismissed" the offer. "Perhaps I should have reported it," he said. "I didn't. I don't know whether there was a specific intent to bribe me or not."

Denlinger could not be reached for comment.

Saldivar also said in a prepared statement that he was "not involved in the selection of Wedtech" for the pontoon contract, but he acknowledged under questioning by Levin that he "may" have endorsed Wedtech to other SBA officials as "the stronger candidate."

According to records produced by the subcommittee, Saldivar also gave Wedtech a three-year extension in the SBA program on Jan. 25, 1984, despite what Levin called "a sham stock transaction" designed to preserve Mariotta's status as minority owner of the company. That same day, at a meeting Saldivar attended, Navy officials were told Wedtech was the SBA's candidate for the pontoon contracts.

On Feb. 21, 1984, Wedtech adviser E. Robert Wallach wrote in a memo that "Saldovar {sic} is the man" if the top slot in the minority business program, then occupied by Henry Wilfong, a black, should open up. "Transfer of the causeway contract to him would facilitate and guarantee its efficient undertaking without bias."

Three days later, according to an SBA memo with a carbon designated for Saldivar, then-SBA Administrator James Sanders named Saldivar to serve on a six-member "SBA causeway systems management team."

Saldivar said he did not recall the assignment. He also said he could not explain why a resume of his wound up in Wallach's files or how Wallach, a San Francisco lawyer and close friend of Attorney General Edwin Meese III, could have written in another memo, dated March 3, 1984:

"Saldovar {sic} has been offered a position in San Francisco with SBA which he would very much like to have . . . . He would stay in Washington if he could have Wilfong's position which would require Wilfong moving up."

"I don't recall ever speaking to Mr. Wallach," Saldivar said. He later left SBA to become director of small business in the office of the secretary of the Navy, replacing Richard Ramirez, another Wedtech backer who later became a consultant to the company and is now under investigation by federal prosecutors.

According to Levin, Wedtech executive Moreno, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to conspiring to bribe federal, state and local officials, told subcommittee investigators that the company agreed to pay Washington lobbyist Mark Bragg at least $200,000 for help in obtaining the 1985 follow-on portion of the pontoon contract despite opposition from uniformed Navy officers.

Shortly after this, Levin added, "Moreno told subcommittee staff that . . . Bob Wallach learned of the promise to Bragg and extracted a similar promise for himself: $150,000 if Wedtech got the options."

Retired Navy captain David de Vicq, who was pontoon program manager, told the subcommittee that the first units had to be rejected because they did not have right-angle corners. He sharply criticized a Nov. 19, 1984, decision by Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy L. Wayne Arny III to approve the 1985 option for Wedtech, with cost to be negotiated later.

"To me, it was . . . a license to steal," de Vicq said. He said he was told by Arny and by Saldivar, who had become the Navy's small-business adviser, that he was "pushing them {Wedtech} too hard." Arny is scheduled to testify today,

A Nov. 12, 1984, Wallach memo to Wedtech executives suggested "a private meeting with Captain D" to make him "aware of Wedtech's general ally structure."

De Vicq said that following his retirement in 1986, Ramirez telephoned him to suggest that Wedtech wanted to hire de Vicq as a consultant.

"I had one of the longer and better laughs in my life," de Vicq said. "I said, 'Hell, no.' "

Ramirez informed the subcommittee through his lawyer that he would not appear before it voluntarily and, if subpoenaed, "would invoke his constitutional right not to testify."