TAMPA — The Tampa police sergeant at the center of a DUI scandal says he felt dragged through the mud by his close friend at the Adams & Diaco law firm.
That friend, Adam Filthaut, tipped Sgt. Ray Fernandez off to a drunken driver at Malio's Prime Steakhouse on Jan. 23. Fernandez pulled that man over.
But the sergeant says he had no idea C. Philip Campbell was currently facing off against Filthaut's firm in a high-profile defamation trial, pitting radio host Todd "MJ" Schnitt against rival Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.
Fernandez found out the next day at about 7 a.m., when Campbell's DUI arrest made the news. The sergeant says he was "pretty pissed." He called Filthaut in a conversation later recounted to state investigators:
"This guy, he's an attorney," Fernandez remembers saying.
"Yeah. He's an attorney," he said Filthaut responded.
"You said he worked in your building."
"Well, yeah. He works in my building."
"Yeah. But you didn't tell me he's on this Bubba case. . . . Does he work for you guys?'
"No. He doesn't work on my side."
"Does he work on the other side?"
"Are you kidding me?" Fernandez said.
Fernandez's sworn statement to prosecutors reveals the first comprehensive version of the sergeant's side of the story — including his explanation for how he accidentally deleted 92 text messages central to uncovering a potential DUI setup.
The sergeant has previously declined interviews through his attorney and the Tampa Police Department. He was moved to a desk job in May because of the FBI's ongoing investigation. He has not been disciplined.
He told Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's investigators that he lit into Filthaut and, at the advice of an attorney, has not spoken to him since. Previously, they had been close family friends.
Fernandez says he told Filthaut that he should have explained his firm's connection to Campbell.
"Well, Ray," the sergeant remembers Filthaut saying, "What's the big deal?"
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For Sgt. Fernandez, it all started with a text shortly after 7 p.m.
"Hey, are you working tonight?" Filthaut asked.
Yes, Fernandez replied, and Filthaut tipped him off to Campbell.
For several hours, the pair texted back and forth. Fernandez remembers updates from Filthaut such as:
"He's drinking more."
"Hey, he's with girls, and he's buying a whole 'nother round of drinks."
"Hey, he's leaving."
The information was so detailed, Fernandez joked it appeared Filthaut — or someone else — was acting as a confidential informant, or "CI" in police talk.
"Man, you're CI," the sergeant texted. "How good are they, getting information."
For the DUI sergeant laying in wait, the consistent text updates were a glimpse into an odd scene unfolding at the bar at Malio's — one that caught the attention of other lawyers and the Malio's staff.
That's because Melissa Personius, the pretty paralegal from Adams & Diaco who sidled up next to Campbell at the bar and lied about where she worked, was being "extremely flirtatious," according to the bartender.
"She was turned toward to him, really leaning close into him, talking with her face very close to his," bartender Denise DiPietro would later tell investigators.
Even Campbell, then 64, was surprised when Personius, then 30, bought him a shot of Southern Comfort. "I've never had a girl buy me drinks before," the bartender heard him say.
The pair left together, and Campbell drove Personius' car when she refused to leave it in Malio's parking lot.
Fernandez was ready. He pulled Campbell over at 9:57 p.m. after, he says, the lawyer cut off a vehicle to turn right.
Another officer, Timothy McGinnis, conducted the field sobriety test and arrested Campbell. This time, the sergeant kept his friend Filthaut updated with texts:
"Hey, yeah, we got him stopped."
"My guy's arresting him."
"He's going to jail."
"My guy's putting cuffs on him."
State prosecutors, who dropped Campell's DUI charge last week, had to take Fernandez's word about his texts. The sergeant deleted all of them the next day. He says it was an accident. He told prosecutors that everything on his cellphone was wiped out when he tried to update it to a new Android operating system called Jelly Bean.
The Police Department never investigated his claim and now says they cannot open an Internal Affairs investigation because the FBI launched an inquiry in April.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been on vacation in North Carolina and has not commented.
Filthaut's attorney Mark J. O'Brien said Monday: "Sgt. Fernandez is an honorable police officer who has protected our community from DUI offenders for years. He did nothing wrong . . . and thus neither did Adam Filthaut." Fernandez was accurate in his statement to prosecutors, and there was no criminal conspiracy between him and Filthaut, the attorney said.
For 14 years, the two had been close. Their families went on vacations together. Their wives have been friends for nearly four decades.
Fernandez feels like his friend used him, he told the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
A prosecutor asked whether Fernandez would have behaved differently if he had known about the connection.
"I probably wouldn't even been out there, to be real honest with you," he replied. "'Cause I know what the ramifications are politically to something like that."
Are he and Filthaut still friends?
"I would think it was a very strained friendship," said Fernandez's lawyer, David Dee. "If there is one."
Times news researchers John Martin and Natalie Watson and staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433.