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Diaco case presents Florida Bar an unusual challenge

TAMPA — Be forewarned: This story sounds like something out of a Carl Hiaasen novel, or a narrative that John Grisham concocted.

It involves the FBI. It involves lawyers. It involves lawyers representing lawyers accused of setting up other lawyers.

And now, after more than a year of investigation, it involves the agency that governs lawyers.

"I can't say I've seen anything exactly like this before," said Timothy Chinaris, a law professor who served eight years as ethics director for the Florida Bar.

• • •

Last week, the Bar found probable cause that Robert Adams, Stephen Diaco and Adam Filthaut of Tampa's Adams & Diaco law firm had violated its rules.

Their tale begins in January 2013, amid a bitter defamation trial between warring radio shock jocks Todd Schnitt and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

C. Philip Campbell represents Schnitt. Adams & Diaco represents Clem.

After a day in court, Campbell, then 64, sits in a swanky steakhouse bar downtown. A young paralegal from the Adams & Diaco firm takes the stool next to him. She lies about where she works and flirts and drinks with him, according to witnesses.

Later that night, Campbell is arrested for DUI while driving her in her car.

Then comes the twist: Multiple cellphone calls and messages are passed that night between the paralegal, her bosses, and a Tampa police DUI sergeant positioned outside Malio's Prime Steakhouse.

Though the Adams & Diaco lawyers say they were only trying to help get a drunken driver off the streets, a prosecutor assigned to the case uses buzzwords such as "undercover" and "collaboration" and drops the DUI charge. The police officer is fired and the FBI is investigating.

So where does that leave the Bar as it moves forward with disciplinary proceedings?

• • •

The problem with predicting what happens next is that no one's heard of a case quite like this before.

"I can't think of anything close," said New Port Richey attorney David Ristoff.

All three Adams & Diaco lawyers face charges of misconduct, unfairness to opposing counsel and disrupting court. If guilty, their punishment can range from admonishment to suspension to disbarment.

Disbarments are the exception: In 2012-2013, there were 58 in Florida. That's in a state with nearly 100,000 practicing attorneys.

The numbers, while still incomplete, are running at a similar pace for 2013-2014. Most who were disbarred lost their licenses because they were repeat offenders, or because they committed felonies or serious misdemeanors. Others lost their license for charging excessive fees, commingling client funds, practicing with a suspended license or drug abuse.

Nothing like the charges facing the Adams & Diaco lawyers.

Because it's an ongoing case that gained notoriety, many lawyers are hesitant to comment on what the trial judge and ultimately the Florida Supreme Court will do

Scott Tozian, who represented Campbell before the Bar on the DUI matter, believes the sentence could be "harsh to very harsh."

Two factors, he said, will be crucial when deciding the verdict: The nature of the violations and the attitude of the Florida Supreme Court.

Any action that disrupts a trial is a major concern, Tozian said, "so disrupting the tribunal is potentially a serious violation if it's found to have occurred."

In recent years, Tozian said, "the court has come down hard on lawyers."

During a 2003 case where a lawyer lied about acting against two client's interests, the Supreme Court wrote that it has "moved toward stronger sanctions for attorney misconduct." That decision was referenced again in 2009 when a lawyer failed to disclose financial biases that affected his client.

Other lawyers don't seem worried.

Greg Kehoe, who represents Adams & Diaco, remains confident about his clients' outcome. Once all the evidence is reviewed, he said, "they will be exonerated."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Zack Peterson can be reached at zpeterson@tampabay.com or (813)-226-3446.

Diaco case presents Florida Bar an unusual challenge 05/18/14 [Last modified: Sunday, May 18, 2014 11:39pm]
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