When Francis C. Lee, counselor to the Virginia attorney general, went before a legislative panel Monday -- something he has done dozens of times -- there was no hint of the public storm to come.

"I was just trying to be helpful," Lee said ruefully today, alluding to his comment that a state Supreme Court ruling imposes unexpectedly strict conflict-of-interest standards on when legislators may vote.

Lee, 62, a slightly built, mild-mannered veteran of state government, is considered an expert on conflict-of-interest and freedom-of-information issues. Although accustomed to making major decisions in state government, Lee is rarely mentioned in news reports.

"I hope this is the last time," Lee said.

Lee, who joined state government in 1951 as a legal adviser to the highway department, is best known to hundreds of state and local government employes who since 1982 have attended his seminars on conflicts of interest, which generally have one major theme:

If you have to ask whether something is okay, it's not.

Lee has published numerous articles on ethics, including those written for the University of Richmond, where he received his law degree.

A World War II Navy veteran, Lee worked at various times for the attorney general's office and served on the staffs of two governors, Albertis Harrison and Mills E. Godwin in his first term.

From 1966 until 1982, Lee was in private practice in Richmond before being selected as chief deputy attorney general under Gerald L. Baliles.

Attorney General Mary Sue Terry named Lee to a new position as counselor earlier this month.

"His mind is a conceptional framework -- he thinks in Roman numerals and little a's and b's," said Terry, who aides said wanted to appoint her own deputy but also to keep Lee for his experience.

David Hathcock, director of the Department of Commerce and press secretary to Baliles when he was attorney general, said Lee "struck me as being the most sensitive government person I ever worked with in connection with . . . conflicts of interest."