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A year later, high-profile case involving Tampa lawyers drags on

TAMPA — A year ago this week, scandal rocked Tampa's legal scene.

It had everything: A trial so bitter even courtroom veterans noticed. A chance meeting — or was it? — at a swanky bar between a lawyer and an attractive paralegal from the other side who drank with him. The lawyer's DUI arrest later thrown out after prosecutors called it a setup.

Since then, a veteran DUI officer has been fired and Tampa police changed how it handles DUI arrests.

As for the lawyers involved? The ones prosecutors indicated in a scathing report set up opposing counsel in a tableau that's been the talk of the town?

Very little has happened, at least publicly.

The Florida Bar, which disciplines lawyers, is investigating three attorneys at Tampa's Adams & Diaco firm — Robert Adams, Stephen Diaco and Adam Filthaut.

A year later, no decision.

The FBI is also investigating. Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said their investigation is "ongoing."

The story so far: On a weekday night last January, Tampa lawyer C. Philip Campbell stopped by Malio's bar at the end of another bruising day in court representing radio host Todd "MJ" Schnitt in a defamation suit against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

A dark-haired woman half his age settled on the stool next to Campbell. They struck up a conversation. But Melissa Personius lied and said she worked as a paralegal at another law firm — not at Adams & Diaco, the one battling Campbell in court.

She flirted, drank and bought Southern Comfort for the lawyer, then 64. Prosecutors later said it was clear Personius was working "undercover" to get Campbell arrested.

Meanwhile, Adams & Diaco lawyer Filthaut had tipped his buddy on the Tampa Police DUI squad, Sgt. Ray Fernandez, about a drunk man who would be leaving Malio's. Fernandez waited nearby with another officer and kept in touch by phone with his friend — who seemed to know what was going on inside the bar.

About 10 p.m., a drunk-looking Personius insisted she needed her car. Campbell, who had been planning to walk home, drove her. Fernandez pulled him over blocks from the bar and Campbell went to jail.

Months later, prosecutors dropped the DUI and authorities shifted their focus to the Adams & Diaco attorneys. Of interest was the flurry of phone calls and texts that night between the paralegal, Adams & Diaco lawyers and the DUI sergeant.

Agents with search warrants confiscated cellphones. A warrant indicated they were looking into potential civil rights violations. No charges have been filed.

Meanwhile, the Florida Bar has had a grievance committee reviewing Adams, Diaco and Filthaut's actions for more than 10 months. State prosecutors had determined the phone calls indicated a "pattern of communication … that would leave no doubt in any reasonable mind as to their motives and intentions."

A grievance committee, made up of lawyers and non-lawyers, generally works like a grand jury and decides if there is probable cause that a lawyer violated rules.

This committee is scheduled to meet again in March.

If a committee finds probable cause, a formal complaint is filed and details of the investigation are public. Until and unless that happens, clients who check a lawyer on the Bar website will see "no discipline" under a lawyer's name.

The Adams & Diaco lawyers continue to practice, as does Campbell. The Bar ended its investigation into his DUI arrest.

"It is totally out of our hands now," said his attorney John Fitzgibbons. "We are just waiting for the process to reach its conclusion."

Attorney Scott Tozian, who represents lawyers facing potential Bar discipline, said the Bar could be waiting for federal investigators to finish.

"I don't think a year is inordinate, given this case and the amount of information there is to digest with the state investigation and whatever else they've got their hands on," Tozian said.

Tampa police acted more swiftly. The agency stood by Fernandez for months, but Chief Castor changed course after learning Fernandez and his lawyer friend exchanged multiple texts and calls. She empaneled a review committee and announced more changes to the DUI unit Thursday.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's office reviewed dozens of Fernandez's DUI cases. At least a dozen arrestees got a break when their cases were dropped because he was a critical witness.

Attorneys for Adams & Diaco and Filthaut declined this week to say whether their clients had spoken to the FBI, federal prosecutors or the Florida Bar.

"What happens with any investigation is it takes as long as it takes," said attorney Greg Kehoe, representing the firm. "You just let the system run its course."

Todd Foster, who represents the paralegal, declined to say if she had spoken to investigators.

"I'm sure she wished that none of it happened," he said. "But it is what it is, and she's dealing with it."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433.

A year later, high-profile case involving Tampa lawyers drags on 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 10:02pm]
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