Former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian has asked a judge to discharge his court-appointed lawyers and let him represent himself until he can hire a high-profile law firm from Washington.
In a handwritten motion filed Tuesday, Al-Arian indicated he is close to hiring William B. Moffitt and Henry W. Asbill from the firm of Asbill Moffitt & Boss to defend him against terrorism-related charges.
He cited irreconcilable differences with his current lawyers, Frank Louderback and Jeffrey Brown.
In April, a judge appointed Louderback and Brown, both experienced defense attorneys, after Al-Arian failed to raise enough money to retain his original lawyer, Nick Matassini. Al-Arian and his wife have balked at having government-appointed lawyers.
The news came as no surprise to Louderback.
"He certainly had a right to file it, he told me he wanted it filed, and I filed it for him," said Louderback, who said he and Brown will attend to the case until a judge makes a decision.
Moffitt said Tuesday that the negotiations to represent Al-Arian were ongoing.
"Hopefully, we are going to enter an appearance very soon," said Moffitt, declined to discuss the situation further.
If Moffitt's firm signs on soon, the judge could discharge Louderback and Brown right away. If Moffitt's decision takes some time, the judge would have to decide whether to let Al-Arian defend himself in the interim, or keep Louderback and Brown on the case, perhaps as standby counsel.
Federal agents arrested Al-Arian and three other men in February on charges that they supported, promoted and raised money for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group considered responsible for more than 100 deaths.
Federal prosecutors say agents taped thousands of telephone conversations over several years _ most of them in Arabic _ while they had Al-Arian and the other men under surveillance.
Al-Arian's request for bail was rejected and he remains at the Coleman Correctional Facility in Sumter County. He also wanted a speedy trial but the federal judge overseeing the case set a January 2005 trial date for all four defendants. Lawyers for the other three defendants said they will need at least 18 months to examine all of the evidence.
Local attorneys have estimated it could cost $1-million or more for a private law firm to represent Al-Arian. Al-Arian's supporters have been raising funds for his defense ever since his arrest.
If Moffitt and Asbill officially sign on to the case, they could be on it for years, said former federal prosecutor Steve Crawford.
"The rules make it clear that once you enter a notice of appearance in a case in federal court, you are committed to stay in that case regardless of the attorney fee situation," Crawford said. "It is very difficult to withdraw."
Moffitt and Asbill are known for taking on difficult and sometimes controversial cases. Moffitt's past clients include the United Way's former president William Aramony, convicted of defrauding the charity umbrella group, and Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers rock band, in an appeal of sexual battery and indecent exposure charges.
Moffitt has been critical of the Bush administration's handling of civil liberties in the war on terrorism. In 2001, he took on the case of Agus Budiman, an Indonesian man with links to three of the Sept. 11 hijackers, who was charged with identity fraud and violating his visitor's visa.
At the time, Moffitt said the government's abuses of some peoples' civil rights was one of the reasons he took on the Budiman case. Budiman was convicted of a lesser charge and deported to Indonesia.
"I've been listening to the attorney general saying how we suddenly as a society because of the events of Sept. 11 have now got to reconsider those things that we consider civil liberties," Moffitt told Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service. "I don't think that's the case, I don't want that to be the case, and I certainly don't want the criminal justice system to suffer because of what some person may have done on Sept. 11."
Moffitt, a past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, has been selected for the Best Lawyers in America publication several times. He has been a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union and has appeared on numerous TV programs including NBC's Today show, CNN's Crossfire and most of the major networks.
Asbill, a 1969 graduate of Princeton University and 1974 graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, is a former public defender and past president of the American Board of Criminal Lawyers. He, too, has appeared on numerous TV shows and has taught trial practice at Georgetown University Law Center.
"We are well-known for taking novel, "outside the box' approaches to solving legal problems," they say on their Web site. "We are unusually aggressive in our efforts to achieve our clients' goals. And, each partner, in criminal cases, has exclusively represented defendants his entire career."
_ Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report. Graham Brink can be reached at (813) 226-3365 or brinksptimes.com.