They came forward like guest speakers at a testimonial--a congressman and state highway commissioner, a former governor and a former senator. In warm, almost reverent tones, they praised the businessmen sitting before them as honest, trustworthy, charitable pillars of the community.

Former governor Mills E. Godwin, Rep. G. William Whitehurst, former senator William B. Spong and Highway Commissioner T. Ray Hassell III were not speaking from a Rotary Club podium, but from a witness stand at the federal courthouse here. They were testifying on behalf of businessmen who had been charged with fixing prices on federal, state and local road projects in a conspiracy that prosecutors alleged ran unchecked for 17 years.

Virginia is one of 13 southern and midwestern states where federal antitrust prosecutors are pursuing highway bid-rigging. So far, 66 companies and 98 individuals have pleaded guilty or been convicted, with fines totaling $16 million and jail terms totaling more than 16 years.

In Virginia, 11 firms and 17 people--including Portsmouth businessman R. Curtis Saunders, whom Godwin, Spong and Hassell had praised--have pleaded guilty or no contest or been found guilty. Investigators have recently empaneled a grand jury in Alexandria to investigate bid-rigging in the Washington suburbs.

The scandal rocked this state harder than most because it tarnished Virginia's self-image of integrity in government and because many of those involved are, like Saunders, leaders of the state's political and business establishment. Three Richmond road pavers, Eugene G. Bowles Jr., Gordon F. Penick Jr. and John A. Blakemore Jr., all of whom contributed at least $1,000 to Gov. John N. Dalton's 1977 campaign, were accused of cutting an illegal deal while meeting at Richmond's exclusive Commonwealth Club.

Virginia highway officials said they had no idea bids were being rigged, a contention many involved in the case said they find hard to believe. "They had to be deaf and blind not to pick it up," said a lawyer for one bid-rigging defendant.

State officials, including Highway Commissioner Harold C. King, have contended there is no direct evidence that the conspiracy cost the state money. Tidewater highway commissioner Richard G. Brydges, a Virginia Beach lawyer who represented one of the accused contractors before he joined the commission last summer, agrees.

"It's just one of those post-Watergate, white-collar fraud situations that didn't amount to a hill of beans in terms of the public losing money," Brydges said. "These are good, reputable people that we've dealt with a long time."

King concedes that he can't know whether the department lost money, because the department's own estimates may have been tainted by the bid-rigging. Highway officials routinely estimated what a job should cost so they could tell if the bids were too high--but their estimates were always based on past jobs that are now known to have been fixed as well.

Recent testimony suggests the state was, in fact, shortchanged. At a federal trial earlier this month, Blakemore testified that he was paid $18,000 by another road paver to submit an inflated false bid on a contract that the other paver wanted. If the bid-rigging didn't ultimately inflate prices, where did the paver get the alleged bribe money?

King says he finds the question "really distressing."