Monday, April 23, 2018
News Roundup

'MJ' Schnitt's attorney accuses Love Sponge's counsel of conspiracy, seeks mistrial

TAMPA — The lawyers had lawyers, and with Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and Todd "MJ" Schnitt's defamation trial taking the back seat Friday afternoon, the real drama could begin.

This one had it all.

A dark-haired paralegal, seducing a trial attorney on the opposing side.

A lawyer tipping off police to a DUI that might happen later in the night.

A briefcase filled with secrets, left for hours in the enemy's hands.

A lawyer and a witness took the stand and repeatedly pleaded the Fifth Amendment to avoid incrimination.

Local attorneys stopped by the courtroom to watch the action. Others tuned in to live streams on television and followed hashtags on Twitter.

The first cry of foul play came about 9 a.m. Friday, when a lawyer on Schnitt's side accused Clem's attorneys of setting up Charles Philip Campbell Jr.'s DUI arrest Wednesday. Campbell also represents Schnitt, and his arrest caused the trial to be postponed Thursday.

Schnitt's attorney moved for a mistrial because, after Campbell's arrest, employees at the opposing legal firm had possession of Campbell's trial bag — filled with confidential information — for about 20 hours.

Clem's attorneys at the firm Adams & Diaco said they were offended at the insinuation. They denied ever opening the briefcase.

But during testimony Friday afternoon, an attorney and a paralegal at Adams & Diaco pleaded the Fifth about a dozen times. And both happened to forget to bring their cell phones, which might have been useful evidence.

Tampa attorney Lyann Goudie called it a John Grisham novel come to life. Lawyer Rick Terrana said he has never heard anything like this in his 24 years of trial work.

"The case itself was cause for head-shaking to begin with," he said. "And it just keeps getting worse."

At the heart of Friday's proceedings were some serious allegations — if not criminal, then maybe enough to disbar a lawyer or two. And it remained unresolved Friday night. Circuit Judge James Arnold said he needed time to research before ruling on the motion for mistrial.

The trouble started Wednesday, about 7 p.m. at Malio's Prime Steakhouse in downtown Tampa.

Schnitt's attorneys, Campbell and Jonathan Ellis, stopped by for a drink after a full day in court. They chatted with other attorneys and a pretty paralegal.

Her name was Melissa, and she said she worked at the law firm of Trenam Kemker, Ellis said.

Campbell talked about his big case, as did another attorney who had stopped by their table, Michael Trentalange.

He remembered Melissa ordering drinks for the table. Something with Southern Comfort, he testified Friday.

She never told the men her last name or where she really worked:

The law firm of Adams & Diaco — the firm representing Clem.

Meanwhile, about 7:30 p.m., a lawyer at Adams & Diaco picked up the phone and dialed his son's godfather, a man he had known for a long time, Tampa police DUI Sgt. Ray Fernandez.

There is a man at Malio's who gets drunk and then drives, attorney Adam Filthaut told Fernandez.

Two officers drove to a spot near Malio's and waited.

About 9:50 p.m., they pulled Campbell over as he was driving Melissa's car. He refused a breath test. They booked him into jail on a DUI charge.

Melissa — full name, Melissa Personius — was free to go. And in the back seat of her car lay Campbell's bulging briefcase, filled with depositions, transcripts, notes and exhibits about the case he was trying against Clem.

When asked in court Friday about that night, Personius, 30, invoked her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent.

Did her boss at Adams & Diaco tell her to get Campbell drunk?

Fifth Amendment.

Did her boss tell her to ask Campbell to drive her car that night?

Fifth Amendment.

On Thursday, Campbell was bailed out of jail, and shortly before 3 p.m., according to Personius, the paralegal discovered she had Campbell's briefcase in her back seat.

She called her boss, Robert Adams, and told him. He told her not to do anything with it.

Soon, another attorney with the firm was at her house. He drove the briefcase back to the law firm in downtown Tampa, where yet another attorney decided it should go back to Personius so she could return it, the lawyers said Friday.

Like a burning coal, no one wanted to hold it long.

Florida Bar rule 4-4.4 (b): A lawyer who receives a document relating to the representation of the lawyer's client and knows or reasonably should know that the document was inadvertently sent shall promptly notify the sender.

About an hour later, the briefcase was back in Personius' hands.

She took a cab to Campbell's office — the law firm of Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick — and had the cab driver take the briefcase up to the office.

Why take a cab? an attorney asked in court Friday.

Fifth Amendment.

Records show Personius' driver's license is suspended. She was arrested on a DUI charge once in 2009 and has multiple driving infractions, according to state records.

But that was not brought up in court Friday.

Instead, an attorney at Campbell's firm told Judge Arnold that he thinks the cab driver was used to hide the fact that Personius had the bag.

"Their idea was to have the bag anonymously dropped off," said that attorney, Jaime Austrich.

But it was too late. For reasons not explained in court, someone at Campbell's firm had pulled up Personius' mugshot from her previous arrest and made the connection. Campbell's firm then called the office of Adams & Diaco as Personius was en route.

Now it is up to the judge to decide whether the MJ-Bubba trial can proceed.

Times news researcher John Martin and staff writer Will Hobson contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.

 
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