TAMPA — Grisham-like allegations that lawyers set up an opposing attorney for a DUI arrest mid trial heated up Thursday when federal agents seized the cellphones of a lawyer and a Tampa police sergeant.
The scorching trial of shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem versus his radio nemesis earlier this year took a back seat to the question that has been the buzz of the legal community ever since:
Was there a made-for-the-movies conspiracy between lawyers and cops to smear the guy working the other side of the courtroom?
At 6 a.m. Thursday, both a Tampa lawyer and an experienced DUI sergeant were greeted by the FBI. Agents had search warrants for the cellphones of attorney Stephen Diaco and Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez.
The warrant indicated investigators are looking into potential civil rights violations, according to Diaco's attorney, Norman Cannella Sr. One of the statutes cited deals with "deprivation of rights under color of law." According to the FBI, it is a federal crime for anyone using police power — acting under "color of law" — to deprive or conspire to deprive a person of their constitutional rights.
Both Diaco and Fernandez surrendered their personal phones.
It's unclear if others involved in the alleged DUI setup Jan. 23 were also served warrants. But phones could be key to cracking this case.
Calls between lawyers, Tampa police and a dark-haired young woman in a downtown bar are at the center of allegations of a sleazy setup in January.
Diaco's firm was defending Clem in a particularly contentious defamation suit when the out-of-court sideshow overshadowed the trial.
C. Philip Campbell, 65, who was representing DJ Todd "MJ" Schnitt, was drinking at Malio's Prime Steakhouse after a day in court when a young woman half his age began buying him drinks.
Melissa Personius did not tell him she was a paralegal for Adams & Diaco. They left together, and within minutes, Campbell, who has a previous DUI arrest, was pulled over driving her car and charged with DUI.
Sgt. Fernandez would later testify that he got the tip about Campbell from Adam Filthaut, another Adams & Diaco lawyer, and that police sat on the scene that night. The sergeant is the godfather of Filthaut's son.
During the motion for a mistrial that followed, both Diaco and the paralegal were asked to bring their cellphones to court, presumably to track calls or texts from that night. Neither did. Diaco, who invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to testify several times, said he forgot his phone.
Because the Hillsborough state attorney had been called as a witness in the shock jock trial, the governor assigned Campbell's DUI case to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe in February. Though prosecuting a DUI is usually a routine decision, this investigation is ongoing, indicating a much deeper look at the circumstances surrounding Campbell's arrest.
The FBI launched a parallel investigation. The Florida Bar is also looking into lawyers' actions in this case.
Thursday, Campbell's attorney, John Fitzgibbons, said he and his client were contacted "some weeks ago" by FBI agents from the public corruption and civil rights units.
"We are fully cooperating with the federal criminal investigation, and while we obviously don't know all the details of the investigation, it seems clear to me that Mr. Campbell is considered a 'victim' for the purposes of federal criminal statutes," he said.
"I urge the lawyers and police officers involved in this sordid affair to do as Mr. Campbell has done and cooperate with the federal investigation as well as the ongoing state investigation."
Attorneys Filthaut and Diaco did not return calls or emails for comment. However, an attorney representing the Adams & Diaco firm called a reporter with a statement. Myles Malman said he could not comment on any specifics about who was served or when.
"The parties vigorously deny any wrongdoing," he said, "and beyond that they have no further comment."
In an email Thursday, Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said: "The Tampa Police Department is working with the FBI in its investigation to determine if there was any wrongdoing in the arrest of Phil Campbell in January of this year. … TPD holds its officers to very high standards and it will assist the FBI in a thorough investigation to ensure the integrity of the police department."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sue Carlton can be reached at email@example.com. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.