Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington) warned today that the Virginia General Assembly must not "start down the hill toward appearing to tolerate sleaziness" or it will get a reputation of "being like Maryland."

Asked by reporters if she were certain that Virginia legislators were more honest than their counterparts across the Potomac, Marshall said, "I'm sure of it."

She said she has "friends in Maryland who say the first thing you have to do if you are going to run for office there is establish that you are not a crook."

Unlike Maryland, she said the Virginia legislature is "known" around the country as being "remarkable for its honesty, decorum, openness and perfection of procedure."

In Maryland, Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore), chairman of that legislature's Senate Ethics Committee, responded that, where crooks are concerned, "Maryland at least catches theirs."

Unlike Virginia, Lapides said, he could not recall any Maryland legislator being indicted on charges directly related to votes.

Virginia Sen. Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk) has been indicted on charges that he voted to kill a bill last year that would have benefited a client from whom he had received more than $60,000 in legal fees.

Marshall is a member of the Privileges and Elections Committee of the Virginia House of Delegates, which is wrestling with a revision of the state's conflict-of-interest law. The change was prompted by a new, strict interpretation of a 1984 Virginia Supreme Court decision and has been spotlighted because of Babalas' indictment.

Marshall said that while she favors a strict conflict-of-interest law, "You don't keep a place honest by ethics laws. Maryland has a much tougher ethics law, and you can see what good it's done them."

In fact, the Maryland law is less stringent. It requires only that legislators disclose possible conflicts, not that they refrain from voting.

Lapides, who sponsored Maryland's first legislative disclosure law in the early 1970s, said he believes disclosure is the key to "bringing sunshine into this dark corner of government." Refraining from voting can be "a double-edged sword," he said, working to the advantage of a legislator who has interest in a bill.

As an example, he said, if all lawyers in the state Senate refrained from voting on a bill, now pending there, that seeks to reform estate law, it could not get the constitutional majority necessary for passage.