Ahmed Mohamed, one of two suspended USF students facing federal explosives charges, fears that his family will be harmed if he loses his lawyer.
Still, Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo allowed attorney John Fitzgibbons not to serve on the case, granting his motion to withdraw as counsel Monday.
The hearing for Fitzgibbons’ motion to withdraw was extended Wednesday, when Pizzo adjourned to give Fitzgibbons time to calculate the portion of fees paid he could return to the Egyptian Embassy, the party responsible for the suspended USF student’s defense.
Fitzgibbons said that he had been asked by the embassy and an Egyptian ambassador to continue representing Mohamed, but did not wish to do so. Fitzgibbons had received in excess $500,000 and an additional $50,000 in expense funds, of which he could return at least $300,000 to the embassy.
Fitzgibbons’ estimates were based on his estimation of hours worked under an hourly rate, and he said he expected to have an “itemization” completed and sent to Egypt by Monday.
When Mohamed was asked if he wanted Fitzgibbons to continue as his counsel, he responded by asking permission to address the court and described what he called a conspiracy among parties in Egypt to steal money allocated for his defense.
Mohamed claimed that the Ministry of Higher Education in Cairo approved the expenditure of $750,000, and that all of that money had been paid at once to Fitzgibbons.
Of the $200,000 Mohamed said was missing, he said: “I think the partner in my embassy (in the conspiracy) is keeping this money.”
Fitzgibbons later identified this alleged partner as Ashraf Salama, though incredulous about the accusations against him.
Additionally, Mohamed said he had been urged by Egyptian officials not to discuss the fees made available for his defense in front of a judge, and that handwritten notes saying he didn’t want to be represented by Fitzgibbons were not his idea: “The counselor of my country asked me to … fax him handwritten notes to say I didn’t want (Fitzgibbons) to represent me, and this would allow him to negotiate with (Fitzgibbons).”
As a result, Mohamed claims his parents have been told that they will be indebted to the Egyptian government for the entire amount paid, $750,000, and that he is worried his parents will be in danger if he wishes to sever his relationship with Fitzgibbons. He asked for “witness protection or something similar” for them, and worried that if the money were returned, it might be given to the same person who he believes was involved in the alleged conspiracy.
Though Mohamed offered to provide documentation supporting some of the accusations, Pizzo maintained that any dispute between the Egyptian government and Fitzgibbons about fees did not involve the court, and that “concerns the parents have as a consequence … (are) between the parents and the government of Egypt.”
He wound up granting Fitzgibbons’ motion to withdraw. “You had excellent representation,” he said. “You chose not to get along with him.”
Pizzo told Mohamed the court would give him a lawyer if his embassy would not do so.
Fitzgibbons said he thinks the Egyptian Embassy will provide a new attorney for Mohamed, though no one guaranteed anything. He said that the embassy has had “proposals from a number of law firms.”
When commenting on the hearings, Fitzgibbons framed his opinions in the context of a strained relationship with his former client.
“It is going now from the weird to the bizarre,” he said. “Now he’s accusing Egyptian officials of stealing money as part of some big conspiracy, so you can see what I’ve been dealing with.”