When the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority selected Hunton & Williams as its bond counsel, no one mentioned that the law firm includes former Virginia governor Charles S. Robb, who had appointed two of the authority's directors and had received campaign contributions years ago from a third.

No one has suggested that any of the airports directors benefited financially from choosing Hunton & Williams, or that the choice represented a breach of ethics. But it illustrates the personal and business ties that inevitably entwine the kind of community heavyweights needed on a powerful public body such as the airports board, which is starting to play a major role in the region's economy.

For example, board member Ron M. Linton, a transportation consultant, said he knows people at all of the 14 firms that competed for the multimillion-dollar job of managing the authority's construction program.

"If you get people {on the board} who are aware of what's going on, you're going to be connected to what's going on," said former Virginia governor Linwood Holton Jr., chairman of the board and a Robb appointee.

"When you're a lawyer, you have a lot of friends and associates in a lot of the firms," said Alexandria lawyer William G. Thomas, a close friend of Robb's and a Robb appointee to the airports board. Thomas is generally regarded as the most influential lobbyist in Richmond.

The 11 board members, who draw no pay for their work on the airports board, include two former U.S. representatives, a former governor of Virginia, a former undersecretary of the treasury, a former D.C. Council member, a former member of the Virginia General Assembly and a former D.C. city administrator. The group includes lawyers, bankers, financiers and consultants.

Their main job is to divide one of the most tantalizing financial pies in town -- the $1 billion in contracts to be awarded during the next five to seven years while the authority runs and renovates National and Dulles International airports.

Investment bankers estimate that the fees and commissions from the $1 billion financing package could total $20 million.

The board already has awarded contracts worth an estimated $450,000 a year to the lawyers and financial advisers needed just to prepare to issue the bonds to finance the improvements. Hunton & Williams' bond counsel contract is estimated to be worth $200,000 in the first year.

"The thing that makes us effective and qualified to do this job means we have acquaintances and knowledge of a wide segment of the business and financial leaders in this community," said Arlington financier T. Eugene Smith, a contributor to past Robb campaigns. "We have the knowledge of who is a reliable contractor and who is not."

Smith, who has served on other public bodies, is one of several board members who say they donate their time and energy to the authority out of a sense of public service. "This region's been very good to me, and I like to give something back," he said.

However, several board members have acknowledged that their personal and business relationships could raise the potential for conflict of interest, and at least six have disclosed ties to firms that may compete for airport business:

Before heading the board's Finance Committee, Bette B. Anderson disclosed that she sits on the board of directors of ITT Corp., which owns Hartford Insurance Co. Hartford owns 25 percent of Wheat, First Securities Inc. of Richmond, which this month won a major share of the board's bond underwriting business.

Chairman Holton ruled last year that the ITT relationship did not represent a conflict for Anderson, who served in the Carter administration as a U.S. Treasury undersecretary in charge of administration, law enforcement operations and tariff laws.

Anderson said of the ITT connection: "I knew it was not significant, but I wanted to make sure the universe knows it." She joined other board members in unanimously voting to award Wheat, First a share of the underwriting business.

Linton decided at one of the board's first meetings last year not to participate in decisions about airport financial services because of the possibility that Paine Webber Inc., a client of his consulting firm, might seek contracts with the airport authority. The firm no longer handles Paine Webber, but a new client, Cranston/Prescott, of Washington, was chosen to serve as one of the airports' 14 bond underwriters.

According to the board's own ethics rules, Linton does not have to recuse himself from financial discussions because Cranston/Prescott provides less than 5 percent of his firm's revenue. However, Linton said he wanted to avoid "a position where someone might even perceive something wrong." When the finance committee's recommendation came before the full board, Linton joined with others in unanimously voting to give Cranston/Prescott a share of the underwriting business.

T. Eugene Smith is a director of four mutual funds. The manager of all four funds is an affiliate of Johnston, Lemon & Co. of Washington, which also was chosen as one of the authority's bond underwriters.

Smith said he attends meetings in Johnston, Lemon's offices and knows "all the senior people there." Smith said he disclosed the connection to the board's counsel and did not participate in the board's selection of local investment bankers.

"It does not mean a thing to me that Johnston, Lemon is involved. It puts no dollars in my pocket, no pennies," Smith said.

Holton and Thomas both own stock in Presidential Airways, a commuter airline based at Dulles.

Both men said they bought the stock before being appointed to the board, and disclosed it before accepting the appointment. Each said he would recuse himself from any airport action directly related to Presidential.

Both said they saw no conflict in the benefit to Presidential of the board's general plans to improve Dulles. "When Dulles is improved, it doesn't benefit Presidential vis-a-vis its competitors," Thomas said.

Carrington Williams, a former delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, disclosed that his law firm has done legal work for Wheat, First. Williams said he saw no conflict because he has never worked for Wheat, First and the investment banking firm accounts for less than 5 percent of his law firm's income.

A similarly tricky problem for some board members is their indirect interest in law firms that have represented developers who thrive on the growth surrounding Dulles.

Thomas is a partner in the same law firm as John T. (Til) Hazel, the local development powerhouse, whose brother has interests in Loudoun County.

Thomas said he saw no conflict between his work to improve the airports and the benefit to local landowners. "If the Washington metropolitan area develops and is impacted by what we do, then Til and his brother benefit just as you and I benefit. There is a general benefit," Thomas said.

Other connections reflect the overlap of different businesses that benefit generally from the region's economic growth, and particularly from the increased activity at the airports.

For example Thomas is chief lobbyist in Richmond for legislation that would allow a private development partnership to build an $80 million, 17-mile extension of the Dulles Toll Road from the airport to Leesburg. Thomas' client, Municipal Development Corp. of New York, is a principal in the partnership.

Thomas said he told Municipal Development that he also represents some of the landowners in the area around Dulles, and could not represent Municipal Development in any dealings with the landowners.

Thomas said he also told Municipal Development that he could not be involved "to the extent that their proposal is affected by the airport board." He said, "I would abstain if any related issue came up before the board."

The proposed law to allow a private toll road would remove the current legal prohibition, but would not ensure that the private road would be built, Thomas said. That decision would remain in the hands of the Virginia Department of Transportation, and Fairfax and Loudoun counties, he said.

In any case, Thomas said, the effect of a toll road extension on Dulles would not depend on whether it is publicly or privately built.

Some decisions and ties fall into the gray area that comes with all politics, where personal relationships and familiarity play an incalculable role. In that realm, a decision may not lead to direct gain, but may reinforce ties and lead to indirect benefits.

For example, Robb is one of about 355 lawyers at Hunton & Williams. Robb appointed Holton and Thomas, and received campaign contributions from Smith.

Holton and other board members said Robb's membership in the Richmond law firm played no role in their selection of bond counsel, and that personal connections do not necessarily represent conflicts of interest.

The three men, other directors and other sources familiar with the bond counsel selection said Hunton & Williams made the strongest presentation to the board's Finance Committee. In particular, the firm impressed the board by outlining plans to defend the authority and its bond issue on several sensitive issues of potential litigation, such as the constitutionality of the law that transfered the airports from federal to local control.

Several participants also said it helped that the firm had provided legal assistance to the commission, chaired by Holton, which designed the transfer. The firm also helped draft the Virginia statute which, along with a District law, created the authority.

When the Holton Commission was studying the issue of the board's composition, the group knew it wanted to attract people with the expertise and clout necessary to do a mammoth and politically sensitive job -- renovating the two long-neglected airports, said James T. Murphy, who served on the commission and who is a former Federal Aviation Administration director of the two airports.

Representatives from other airport authorities advised that the directors should not be compensated and not hold elected or appointed offices, said Murphy, now a vice president for airport policy of the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group that lobbied hard for the transfer.

"That takes a lot of spring out of the political springboard," said Murphy. "Every effort was made to avoid, to the extent possible, any political influence."

Murphy said "the idea was obviously to attract the kind of people they attracted . . . who are willing to give time for public service for nothing."

In its 13-month existence, the board has given "every indication that they have the interests of the community and those airports foremost in their minds," Murphy said.