Peter Kostas Babalas, who worked his way up from a shoeshine boy in Boston to a self-described lawyer millionaire in Norfolk, has been at the center of controversy for many of his 17 years in the Virginia legislature.

Even though he is the fourth-ranking member of the state Senate and one of the so-called "Secret Seven" senators who help shape the state budget, Babalas, 63, has earned a reputation as a maverick who shies away from alignments with any major legislative faction.

He won repeated reelections in Norfolk running at large with the support of a coalition of working-class blacks and ethnic groups. But he noted in a recent interiew that he rarely lives in the city he represents, preferring instead to spend most of his time at his oceanfront home in nearby Virginia Beach.

Throughout the recent controversies over his role as an attorney for the now-bankrupt Landbank Equity Corp., most of his colleagues have been reluctant to criticize Babalas publicly, citing his poor health. He was found six years ago to have a bone marrow cancer called multiple myeloma.

He has said that he has been in "considerable pain" in recent weeks, living with muscle relaxers and tranquilizers to sleep.

In the legislature, he has pushed legalizing parimutuel betting on horse races and charity bingo games. He also battled against Virginia's poll tax, which the state retained until outlawed by court rulings. He serves as chairman of the Senate Local Government Committee.

The first member of his family to attend college, Babalas earned an undergraduate degree in economics from Harvard University. He built a flourishing legal practice in Norfolk after graduating from the University of Virginia in 1950.

Babalas became embroiled in another conflict-of-interest issue four years ago. He and several of his colleagues in the General Assembly were the targets of much-publicized charges that they exercized undue influence over the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission when they represented clients before the group. Critics noted that Babalas and other Tidewater legislators involved in legal work before the commission had written many of the liquor laws that governed the panel.

Babalas argued then, as he has in the Landbank case, that merely serving as a lawyer for a client doesn't represent a conflict of interest under the state's laws.

A few years earlier, Babalas was in the headlines in the aftermath of a television reporter's investigation of the personal use of government telephones by legislators. Babalas had run up the largest bill in the Senate -- $2,880 -- with calls on his state telephone credit card during six-months to destinations from Pompano Beach, Fla., to New Orleans.