Lawyer is freed from bomb case

The attorney for the accused USF student expresses delight.

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 15, 2008

TAMPA - A federal magistrate cut attorney John Fitzgibbons loose Monday from the case of an Egyptian student facing federal explosives charges.

Though Ahmed Mohamed first requested the split, the suspended University of South Florida student says it will financially strain on his parents.

He accused an official with the Egyptian embassy, which has allocated $750,000 for his legal defense, of pocketing some of the money and threatening to make his parents pay it back.

Mohamed, 26, called the situation "a conspiracy." The embassy denied any such thing.

For his part, Fitzgibbons said he received a $500,000 nonrefundable fee to bring Mohamed's case to trial.

The attorney estimated he would keep between $100,000 and $200,000 for his three months of work and reimburse the difference to the embassy.

He expects to return most of a $50,000 advance for expenses.

Mohamed and Youssef Megahed, a fellow USF student, were stopped Aug. 4 for speeding near a South Carolina naval base, then arrested when a deputy said he found pipe bombs in their trunk. Both men are charged with illegally transporting explosive materials. Mohamed also faces a charge of demonstrating how to make an explosive device.

Fitzgibbons complained Mohamed would put his head down and pray in Arabic during their visits in jail. "I am not even able to communicate with Mr. Mohamed," the attorney said.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo also had a hard time getting direct answers. When asked whether he wanted to part ways with Fitzgibbons, Mohamed replied with a winding account of hispredicament now that he'd asked for his attorney to be removed.

He said $200,000 of his legal fund was "lost forever," stolen by an embassy official. He said officials were going to make his parents repay the total $750,000 unless he agreed to keep Fitzgibbons. He asked that his parents, who he said have received visas to visit him, be put in a witness protection program for their safety.

Karim Haggag, spokesman for the Egyptian embassy in Washington, D.C., said he could not comment on the allegations.

Egyptian officials plan to hire Mohamed a new attorney, he said. In addition to the money the government will receive back from Fitzgibbons, there is another $250,000 available for the defense, Haggag said. "There's no money that's unaccounted for," he said.

In court, Mohamed said he would like to hire Tampa attorneys Linda Moreno, who represented former USF professor Sami Al-Arian at his terrorism-related trial, and Lyann Goudie.

Goudie said she could not comment on that. Moreno was busy Monday helping defend actor Wesley Snipes in his tax evasion trial in Ocala.

Fitzgibbons was clearly relieved to pass the torch, saying the case had gone "from the weird to the bizarre."

He left the federal courthouse smiling. "I'm now going to dance the Irish jig as I go down Franklin Street," he said.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or 813 226-3337.