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Lester Crown asserted that it was a coincidence that the Lewis retirement announcement on May 22, and the simultaneous notice that Stanley C. Pace, vice chairman of TRW Inc., would succeed him later this year, came just a day after Mr. Lehman penalized the company for misconduct. But his comments on the choice of Mr. Pace seemed to contradict what had been said at the shareholders meeting.
''David and I were almost a committee of two to determine what the succession should be,'' he recalled. ''We talked about Stan Pace before any of these problems came up. But we had concern about debarment, and the Pace succession was accelerated because of it.''
As it turned out, Mr. Lehman had decided against the Inspector General's immediate debarment recommendation. But he left the possibility open for the future, pending further investigations.
For General Dynamics, the troubles have created an unprecedented corporate maelstrom. For Lester Crown, however, it is but the second major tempest in his career. Mr. Crown, heads the Material Service Corporation, a General Dynamics subsidiary and the original Crown holding. In 1974, the United States District Court for Northern Illinois named him and four Material Services associates as unindicted co-conspirators in a case involving bribery of Illinois state legislators. He has consistently declined to discuss any aspect of that case.
But others are not so reticent. ''Bribery is a major felony involving serious moral turpitude,'' said Representative John D. Dingell in a letter regarding the episode that he wrote to Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger earlier this year. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's oversight subpanel, Mr. Dingell has spearheaded Congressional inquiries into the company's business conduct. ''The election to, and the retention on, the Board of Directors of an individual who admittedly was involved in the commission of a major crime is a statement of the integrity of the management of our nation's largest defense contractor.''
But others have staunchly defended Mr. Crown. ''Lester Crown is, and always has been, truly a moral person,'' wrote M.J. O'Brien, a family friend and president of Marblehead Lime, a General Dynamics unit, in a letter to Mr. Dingell last April. He added that Lester Crown's seven children had been ''well schooled in the Judeo-Christian ethic of hard work and honesty.''
Albert E. Jenner Jr., who was Republican counsel during the Watergate hearings and has long been a member of the General Dynamics board, said: ''Lester is a splendid person. He's very careful not to have the board believe he is the major domo of this corporation,'' but Mr. Jenner conceded that Mr. Crown was not just one among equals.
Last week in the company's Crystal City, Va., offices, Mr. Crown admitted that the company ''should have had more foresight,'' But he was more irritated than shamed about General Dynamics' problems.
''Certainly this hurts, but it comes out more in anger than anything else,'' he concluded, expressing exasperation at the company's plight. ''Our friends and our family, we have no problem with. The rest of the world I can't do anything about.''
HENRY CROWN: A FATHER'S LEGACY
WASHINGTON --Henry Crown, who turned 89 on Thursday, is arguably one of America's most influential industrialists, although his name is hardly as well known as Hughes or Getty. Born into a large Jewish immigrant family in a poor Chicago home, he started a building supplies company in 1916 that hit it rich in the rough-and-tumble world of Chicago construction. His Material Service Corporation eventually provided the capital for the family's entry into a widening sphere of business.
Since 1959, when the Crowns merged Material Service with General Dynamics, then a faltering aircraft maker, Henry Crown has guided the big company to preeminence in the weapons market. He remains executive committee chairman, but he ''has been less active over the past year'' because of his wife's illness and his own advancing age, according to his son, Lester.
The Crown family controls 9,828,240 shares of General Dynamics common stock, about 23 percent of the total, according to the company's 1985 proxy statement. The family also has an option to buy 1,687,755 additional shares from the estate of Nathan Cummings, former head of the Consolidated Foods Corporation, now the Sara Lee Corporation, who was the company's second-largest stockholder. A close associate of Henry Crown, Mr. Cummings died on Feb. 19 at the age of 88.
Henry Crown has been chairman of the company's executive committee since 1959, except for a four-year period after 1966, when then-chief executive Roger Lewis (no relation to the recently retired chief executive, David Lewis) forced him off the board in a dramatic power play.
''He's the one from whom everything has emanated around here,'' Lester Crown said reverentially of his father, whom he frequently refers to in conversation as ''my dad.''
The empire that the elder Mr. Crown built is a large, albeit unpublicized, one. The Crown family, according to a proxy statement, owns 10.8 percent of the Chicago Pacific Corporation. According to other proxy statements, the family owns less than 1 percent of the Transworld Corporation and of Trans World Airlines. Among its other holdings are an estimated 3.8 percent of the Hilton Hotels Corporation, and, according to Lester Crown, shares in First Chicago, Pennzoil and Aetna Life.
Today, the elder Mr. Crown, an intensely private man, divides his time among homes in Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles. ''He is not well and Mrs. Crown is quite ill,'' said Albert E. Jenner Jr., a longtime friend and business associate. ''Lester calls him almost every day.''
Lester Crown said that while the patriarch no longer has a ''directional presence'' in General Dynamics' workaday world, ''we keep him up to date and use him for advice.'' Henry Crown ''still has the instinctive ability to get to the heart of a problem,'' he added. ''He does not interfere, but if he has a feeling about something, we listen to it.''