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Lawyer may be replaced in arson case

An Old First Ward resident who faces conspiracy charges in a potential hate crime case may be forced to get a new attorney to represent him in federal court.

A pretrial evidence hearing for Michael W. Fijal, 59, of Tennessee Street, was postponed Wednesday after Fijal's attorney notified U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy that he may have a conflict of interest.

The defense lawyer, Herbert L. Greenman, said he recently learned from federal prosecutors that one of the prosecution's witnesses against Fijal is a former client of Greenman.

Potentially, that could force Greenman to leave the case and require Fijal to find another attorney, court officials said.

Fijal, known as a community leader in Buffalo's Old First Ward, was arrested on conspiracy charges in January.

In a case investigated as a potential hate crime, he is accused of involvement in two arsons at the Mackinaw Street home of a man who is a refugee from the African nation of Congo.

Federal agents are investigating whether the fires, which were set last year, were intended to keep the refugee -- a black man -- from living in the predominantly white neighborhood. The case is being investigated by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI, Buffalo fire marshals and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

While Fijal, who has pleaded not guilty, is the only person charged in the case, authorities said the fires are still under investigation. The Buffalo FBI office earlier this month posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to convictions in the case.

"We're still investigating to determine whether there was a racial motive for these arson crimes," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael L. McCabe said Wednesday.

Fijal declined to comment after Wednesday's court appearance.

McCarthy asked Greenman and McCabe to submit statements to him about the potential attorney conflict, and the judge said he will revisit the issue during a July 10 court appearance for Fijal.