A Republican congressman from Tennessee said yesterday he will seek an investigation of why a Virginia judge freed three men convicted in the biggest drug-smuggling case in the state's history.

Rep. Robin L. Beard, calling the early release "the most blatant example of judicial leniency" he had encountered in a major drug case, said he will ask for a probe by the House Select Committee on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs when it meets Monday.

Beard, who said he was "stunned and outraged" by the judge's decision, said the panel may summon Virginia Circuit Court Judge John R. Snoody Jr. to Washington to explain why he freed two men after they had served less than a year of their 10-year prison sentences. A third man, sentenced to 12 years, served about 13 months before the central Virginia judge ordered him freed.

Beard said the action, which also has infuriated some Virginia law enforcement officers, illustrates the "total frustration" police face in large drug cases.

"I don't think this is an isolated case," he added.

Cumberland County chief prosecutor James P. Baber, who tried the 1979 case with help from Fairfax prosecutor Robert F. Horan Jr., On Capitol Hill.

Rep. Beard said he "will ask that we use this Virginia situation as a test case." Law enforcement officials, he said, often shake their heads at the lack of manpower to cope with even small drug cases.

"When they happen to catch the big dealers, they [the dealers] simply pay a small bond and disappear for the rest of their lives," Beard said, or serve only short prison terms.

Prosecutors in Fairfax County were frustrated this week when an Oxon Hill businessman accused of major cocaine and marijuana dealings in the Washington area failed to appear for trial, forfeiting a $200,000 cash bond. "I predicted four months ago he wouldn't show up," said Fairfax prosecutor Horan.

It was Horan, acting as a special prosecutor, who came to the aid of Cumberland's Baker in 1979 after the so-called "Cumberland Connection" drug bust.Horan said he, too, was astonished when he learned that three of the defendants already have been freed.

Horan had entered the case at Baber's request after prominent defense attorneys representing the five accused smugglers -- described by Baber yesterday as "the kings of the Virginia bar" -- offered to make a $1 million donation to the Cumberland County government if all charges were dropped.

Beard said yesterday that Horan had told him earler this week the Cumberland case was unusual because, unlike many drug cases, the defendants had refused to cooperate with authorities once they had received lengthy prison sentences.

"This group was totally stonewalling, as if they knew somebody would take care of them down the road," Beard quoted Horan as saying.

Horan said this week he had no reason to believe that Snoddy was "anything but an honorable and fair jurist."

Baker said yesterday he had talked to Judge Snoddy this week and believe he was "a little taken aback" by the publicity surrounding his decision. For his part, Baker said, "I don't know anything about the marijuana business. This is my first -- and I hope last -- connection with it."