Virginia Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman, who has been criticized for his handling of the state's highway bid-rigging scandal, announced yesterday that he has reached a settlement with a major paving firm that will enable investigators to expand their probe.

Coleman said that the Rea Construction Co. of Charlotte, N.C., has agreed to reimburse the state $325,000 and to cooperate in the investigation of other firms suspected of collusive bidding on highway contracts. By paying the fine, the company will be allowed to resume bidding on state contracts as early as next week.

"The only way to crack this it to get somebody to cooperate," Coleman said.

"We needed to proceed with the investigation and now things are really opening up."

Coleman, expected to be the Republican candidate for governor next year, has been attached by Richmond prosecutors as too lenient on another highway construction firm, Central Contracting co. of Farmville, Va. That firm settled its case with the state last July by agreeing to pay a $50,000 fine. There were also complaints at the time that Coleman's office had prohibited local prosecutors from bringing criminal charges against Central.

Yesterday's announcement, Coleman made a point of saying that state prosecutors will still be able to file criminal charges against Rea for any of the nine construction contracts it signed with the state.

"The effort here is to make the state whole and to penalize the company," said Coleman. He stressed that the North Carolina firm had been given immunity from prosecution only for $4.5 million of the $15 million in contracts it had with the state. "Anything else we might discover in the future, it will be open season," Coleman said.

The attorney general said he believed Virginia's settlement with Rea was better for the state than the one North Carolina made with the same firm following a similar bid-rigging probe. North Carolina, he noted, had $40 million worth of contracts with Rea but settled all claims for $650,000 and brief jail terms for two of its officers.

Although some Coleman critics expressed doubts yesterday that the attorney general vigorously pursued the investigation, Coleman said his intention all along had been to get construction firms with "tainted" contracts to cooperate.

In a related development yesterday, Norfolk and Virginia Beach officials said they are considering building their own asphalt plants because they are reluctant to continue buying from road-building companies that face bid-rigging charges.