Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.) took the floor last week during Senate debate over the Foreign Missions Act to inquire whether the law firm of Wilkes & Artis might be engaged in "some sort of conflict of interest here."

Rudman was opposing a move--backed by Wilkes & Artis, the kingpins of D.C. zoning law--to give the city's zoning power over the location of foreign chanceries to a new federal board.

The senator wondered aloud whether the firm might be "possibly benefiting from the bill as it might be passed by this Congress," since Wilkes & Artis worked for the State Department on zoning issues, testifed before the Foreign Relations Committee in favor of the State-backed chanceries bill, and represented several foreign governments before the local zoning board.

Could Wilkes & Artis be planning to move in and make money on chanceries seeking to relocate under a law it lobbied for?

Not to worry, senator, a partner at the firm said last Friday. The partner said most of what Rudman said was true: his firm had worked for the State Department, represented several countries--including Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and Indonesia--before the zoning board, and testified for the bill.

But there's no conflict of interest, that partner said, because Wilkes & Artis would lose money if the federal commission were established.

"If the bill passed, it would mean less work for us," that partner argued, because the zoning approval process would take less time and be less cumbersome.

The zoning commission estimates that it now takes an average of four or five months for the zoning board to act on chancery requests. The Saudis, however, spent a year trying to get a new chancery approved, before giving up in frustration. The Wilkes & Artis billing meter was merrily ticking away during that year.

But Wilkes & Artis may not be in danger of losing fees. The Senate passed the act, which sharply restricts foreign government use of property in the United States, but eliminated the provision that would have stripped the city of its zoning powers over chanceries. The House had earlier passed the bill with that provision, so the differences still have to be worked out in a House-Senate conference committee.