Willard J. Moody remembers the days in the mid1950s, when he sat in the back row of the banking directors propose bills that assisated their banks annd businessmen promote bills that helped their businesses. That was the way things were done in the legislature, and Moody, now a state senator from Portsmouth, didn't question it.

So, Moody says, he saw nothing improper two decades later in 1977, after his law firm lost a case before the state Supreme Court, when he introduced a bill to reverse the loss. Nor did he see anything wrong in 1979 when he helped kill a bill opposed by a powerful railroad workers' union -a group whose members bring Moody hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal business each year.

Today, Moody, a sharpfeatured man of 57 who is chairman of the Senate Rules Committee and considered one of the most powerful men in the legislature, is undergoing a Senate investigation on charges that through those two actions he abused his office to benefit his law firm, now named Moody, Strople, Brahm and Lawrence.

He is only the second state legislator in Virginia's 200-year history to undergo a conflict-of-interest probe by his colleagues. The first, Republican State Sen. Nathan H. Miller, lost the recent race for lieutenant governor after newspaper disclosures that he had introduced legislation that benefited clients of his Harrisonburg law firm.

As rules chairman, Moody would have heard the charges leveled against Miller. Senate leaders assigned the probe to another committee after Miller supporters charged that Moody was involved in more conflicts than Miller. That committee decided to add Moody to its investigation, and on Dec. 30 will begin hearing testimony in a closed session.

"Unfair" is what Moody calls the probe, his hands tightening into fists. "A bum rap." The rules of acceptable behavior have changed, he says, and new standards are being applied retroactively to what he did years ago, when Virginia politics was more like the world that young Willard Moody saw from the back row of the House chamber. Many of the state's other 139 legislators have done the same, Moody says.

"As we come into the 20th century, and we realize that people are expecting things of us, we realize that things aren't the same," says Moody, his shoulders slumping wearily under the jacket of a green plaid suit. "The rules have changed.

"I came here when it was accepted practice. Some of the most distinguished members of the General Assembly who owned banks handled banking bills because it was thought that they knew the most about the field . . . and now I'm being held up to ridicule over two bills in 25 years."

Moody, his colleagues say, is worried about the investigation and obsessed with the notion that his Democratic enemies -people he angered as he struggled for power in the assembly -are making him a scapegoat. "Willard Moody's shaking like a damn leaf," says Sen. L. Douglas Wilder (D-Richmond).

Moody, as victim, however, is difficult for some to take. "To say you're in a flock of sinners," says J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a University of Virginia law professor and author of a book on Virginia politics, "is not the same thing as saying you're clean."

The political life of Willard Moody in many ways reflects the Virginia legislature, of which he is both product and creator. Moody sat quietly in his early years there, as his seniority grew. He was, for his day, a renegade of sorts, seen as a liberal for his support of organized labor in a state that is powerfully antilabor. Elected from an area the Byrd machine never dominated, Moody was an outsider.

He was transformed into the consummate political insider overnight in 1976 when he helped lead the ouster of the Senate's conservative leadership in what was called the "Palace Revolt." His reward was the influential chairmanship of the Senate Rules Committee -and a quick track to insider status. It was after Moody won this position of power that he took the steps that led to the conflict accusations against him.

As it has for other state legislators, the growth of his private law firm paralleled the expansion of his public duties. Moody's firm practiced before numerous state agencies and forged close ties with the railroad workers' union -a group that had a direct interest in state laws regulating the industry.

Public pressure to toughen state law that leaves each legislator to determine whether he is caught in a conflict has been building since Miller's defeat and since three of the state's 10 highway commissioners resigned recently after being accused of violating the state's conflict-of-interest law. It was this political atmosphere that led to the Moody investigation.

Moody is not the only Virginia legislator accused of walking perilously close to an ethical, if not legal, conflict. House majority leader Thomas Moss (D-Norfolk), a lawyer, has frequently represented clients before the state's Alcoholic Beverages Commission while heading a committee that overseas the commission. Retiring Del. George Allen (D-Richmond), a personal injury lawyer, has sponsored several bills making it easier for him to win cases for his clients. Neither is under investigation.

Democrats have "thrown him [Moody] to the wolves to avoid the appearance of partisanship when the Democrats go after Nathan Miller," says one Republican senator. "In effect, he is a sacrificial lamb for the Democrats."

Yet, while Moody portrays himself as a victim of changing values and politics as usual, he has -along with Moss, Allen and other legislators -fought successfully against strengthening the state's conflict-of-interest regulations, which Page Bigelow of the National Municipal League says are among the weakest and most confusing in the nation.

That very murkiness now makes Moody an easy target for investigation: Because no one knows exactly what the rules are, no one knows for certain whether he has or has not complied with them.

Says Sen. Ray L. Garland (R-Roanoke), "I guess you could say he's hoist by his own petard."

Sen. Willard J. Moody was not born to political power. He and a twin brother were the oldest boys in a family of 12 children who grew up on a Southside dairy farm. After working his way through T.C. Williams Law School in Richmond and becoming a wealthy Portsmouth attorney, Moody never lost his farmboy drawl.

He entered politics in the 1950s when local Democrats asked him to accept the nomination for a statehouse seat -a nomination tantamount to election in a labor city that hadn't elected a Republican to the legislature in decades.

Moody arrived in Richmond in 1956 and took his House seat in the rear. From that vantage, he not only learned that legislators commonly looked after their own personal and business interests, but that Virginia's Byrddominated antilabor legislature did not welcome a delegate from a labor district. That distance was enhanced when Moody sponsored several bills to liberalize collective bargaining in Virginia.

Moody was no boat rocker. He was a loner. "He's always stayed pretty much to himself," says one of his close Democratic allies. "He never mingles with people." Moody quietly studied the Byzantine workings of the legislature, blending in as generations of freshmen had done before him.

"I sat in the back row and kept my mouth shut and put my bills in, and that worked pretty well," he says. "They liked that back home."

Though seen as a liberal for his support of big labor, Moody stood with the Byrd machine on the raging issue of the day -"massive resistance" to court-ordered school desegregation. As his district has become increasingly black, Moody's views on school segregation have moderated. "At that time," he says, "I thought that [school segregation] was in the best interest of the people."

Moody's bills usually reflected the specific interests of his constituents. And serving those interests, he also could serve his own political ambitions. For instance, when a group of barbers asked Moody to seek stiffer state regulation of barber shops to discourage competition, Moody saw the political benefits. "It was very popular among the barbers, and they have a lot to do with who votes," he says.

He introduced the bill and it failed -again and again. Moody persisted and the bill finally passed. "If he's on your side, he's a bulldog," says Del. Johnny Joannou (D-Portsmouth), a Moody friend and protege. But, adds Joannou, "If you get his dander up, he's a junkyard dog."

Moody later won passage of bigger constituent service bills, spearheading a drive to expand Portsmouth's tunnel and winning a reduction of the tunnel tolls.

Over the years, Moody's law practice also grew with his political success. Chief among his clients were railroad workers with injury claims against their employers. The workers were first referred to him by his father-in-law, a retired railraod engineer. Later, the United Transportation Union put Moody on its list of recommended attorneys -making him the only such lawyer in Virginia. Today, Moody says most of his clients are UTU members. They bring his firm an estimated $500,000 a year in legal business.

There also were clients who needed cases represented before state agencies whose members Moody helped appoint. "We represented clients before practically every state agency," Dennis F. McMurran, a one-time Moody law partner, once wrote in a state disclosure form. Moody today says he no longer represents clients before state agencies, although a member of his firm represents workmen's compensation clients before the State Industrial Commission of Virginia. Moody also has introduced bills geared to changing state workmen's compensation rules.

Moody supporters say it was his reputation as a labor lawyer that kept him from becoming chairman of a major committee even after 20 years in office and his election to the Senate in 1968. In 1976, Moody turned the tables. He and a coalition of liberal-to-moderate senators helped Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax) dump the Senate's conservative majority leader, Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond).

Within days of the coup, Moody was named Democratic caucus chairman and engineered a rules change that made him chairman of the Rules Committee -of which he had not even been a member.

"There is a tremendous amount of bitterness that goes back to the Palace Revolt of 1976," says one Republican senator, who adds that those animosities helped trigger the Moody probe.

Moody was Rules Committee chairman in 1977 when his law firm lost a case before the Virginia State Supreme Court. Four days later, Moody introduced a one-paragraph bill to overturn the law under which his firm's client, Portsmouth tour boat operator Walter M. McDowell, had lost the case.

The bill passed overwhelmingly and marked the beginning of Moody's conflict-of-interest crisis. An opposing lawyer in the case accused him of using his legislative clout to help his client, even though McDowell went out of business that year and did not take advantage of the new law.

"It never crossed my mind at the time that it might be treated as a conflict, although I can see how people say that it looks like one," says Moody. "To me he was just a constituent. I never thought of him as a client when it came before me."

Two years later, Moody was the center of a controversy over conflict of interest again -this time after he cast the deciding vote to sidetrack a measure opposed by the UTU, whose members bring not $1,000 but hundreds of thousands of dollars in business to Moody's firm each year. The bill would have lifted the state's requirement, unique in the nation, that all freight trains carry cabooses.

Sen. Elliott S. Schewel (DLynchburg) angrily accused Moody of "an outrageous conflict of interest." He charged Moody with using his political muscle to get himself named to a key subcommittee where he cast the deciding vote that sent the caboose bill to a study commission where it died.

The same year, Moody also delivered ann impassioned floor speech and voted for another caboose bill -this one drafted by UTU lobbyist Houston Kitts. That bill, which failed, would have increased the penalty for trains running without cabooses.

Moody says he was not in a conflict on the caboose issue, because he represented only members of the union, not the union itself. He also says the union didn't ask him to take a position. In fact, if he had wanted to improve his business, Moody says he would have supported the anticaboose bill because it would have resulted in more railroad worker injuries and more legal business for him.

The two disputes brought a flurry of angry newspaper editorials against Moody, but eventually it seemed they would be forgotten without any political impact back home.

In Portsmouth, however, Moody became embroiled in still another controversy regarding his use of legislative power. Lawyers there charged that Moody had abused his power when he helped win a Circuit Court judgeship for an old political ally and business associate, former Democratic Del. Lester E. Schlitz, over the objections of the local bar association.

In 1981, the grumbling got louder when Moody wanted his law partner, McMurran, to fill another circuit judgeship. When the local bar association balked at Moody's plan, the senator named a citizens committee -headed by one of his closest friends -to nominate judicial candidates. The panel nominated McMurran, who was elected with the overwhelming support of Democrats in the General Assembly.

Moody does not understand what all the fuss was about. "If the Republicans were holding office, it wouldn't be me they would name to a judgeship, now would it?" he asks in the spirit of traditional partisan politics.

Despite Moody's defense of his actions, he finds his view of conflict of interest today changing with the changing political climate, as did his view of school desegregation years before. Moody says that today he probably would support a bill to toughen and clarify Virginia's conflict-ofinterest law -not because he has ever been in a conflict, but because appearing to be in a conflict is a political liability.

That is the advice he gave Johnny Joannou as they drove home together from Norfolk to Portsmouth recently. Should he get a state liquor license for a restaurant he owns with his parents? Joannou recalls asking Moody.

"'Jesus! The way things are today, I don't think there's a conflict with it, but, hell, you just shouldn't get into it,'" Joannou remembers Moody telling him.

"He said, 'I'm just disgusted. I wouldn't mess with it because somebody's going to run against you, and they're going to accuse you of conflict when you're trying to help someone else.'"