TAMPA — It should have been a routine hearing to determine if a DUI arrestee would lose his license for refusing a breath test.
But details that emerged about Tampa's talker of a court case — lawyers accused of plotting to get opposing counsel arrested and using an attractive paralegal to do it — were anything but routine.
According to testimony at that hearing, a DUI sergeant staked out a downtown bar armed with a photo of a lawyer he was told was drinking inside — a stake-out that would last two hours and involve three officers.
The tip came from an attorney in a firm fighting that lawyer in a bitter court battle. Later that evening, the tipster fed play-by-play details via cellphone about what was happening inside the bar — he's getting ready to leave, no, wait, he's ordering another round — to the sergeant outside. And the tipster and the officer were close family friends.
Those details got an airing in a February hearing to decide whether lawyer C. Philip Campbell's driving privileges should be suspended for refusing a breath test after he was pulled over Jan. 23 a few blocks from the bar at Malio's Prime Steakhouse.
But Campbell's attorney, John Fitzgibbons, clearly had another goal for that hearing: To prove through the police themselves that this was a bad-faith, illegal arrest.
Campbell, 65, was in the middle of a contentious defamation trial involving two local DJs, But even bombastic Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and Todd "MJ" Schnitt were eclipsed by the news that employees of Adams & Diaco, the law firm opposing Campbell in court, were deeply involved the night of his DUI arrest.
This included Melissa Personius, a 30-year-old Adams & Diaco paralegal who met Campbell at the bar, drank with him and left with him — and later admitted she had lied and said she worked for a different law firm. Campbell, who lived within walking distance of Malio's, was arrested driving her car.
Allegations of lawyerly conspiracy have the attention of both the FBI and the Florida Bar. The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which is handling what would normally be a routine DUI arrest, is doing its own extensive investigation before deciding whether to go forward with the charge against Campbell.
The administrative hearing in February focused on testimony from Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, who has spent 15 years of his 19-year career working DUIs and been named MADD's DUI Officer of the Year. He said he got a call that night on his personal cellphone about "a gentleman by the name of Mr. Campbell" who drinks heavily and drives home and was currently at Malio's.
The tip came from Adam Filthaut, Fernandez's "very close" friend of 15 years and his son's godfather. Their wives have been friends for 35 years, he said.
Filthaut is an attorney with Adams & Diaco.
Fernandez said Filthaut had also called a month earlier about Campbell drinking there, and that his own knowledge of Campbell was "absolutely zero." Filthaut had called him about people driving drunk three to five times over the years, the sergeant said, but he couldn't remember if he had made arrests in those cases.
Fernandez sent an officer who staked out Malio's, and about an hour later, he took over and was joined by another officer in a separate car. He had Campbell's picture from a state driver's license database to identify him.
Through phone calls, he communicated with his friend Filthaut "several times" during the stake-out. Filthaut gave him "updates," he said, such as, "Oh, I think he's going to be leaving; no, he's decided to buy another round of drinks for everybody.' I mean, just back and forth."
Filthaut later gave him a description of the paralegal's car — actually, her mother's car — which Campbell was driving when he was arrested.
At the hearing, Fitzgibbons asked the officer: Was the play-by-play being relayed by someone actually in the bar?
"I wish I could tell you where Mr. Filthaut was, sir," Fernandez answered. ". . . I couldn't tell you if he was standing there with Mr. Campbell, if he was buying drinks for Mr. Campbell, if Mr. Campbell was buying him drinks." He said he didn't ask Filthaut where all the "intel" was coming from that night.
Fernandez said he didn't include Filthaut's name on any of the DUI police reports because he didn't think it was pertinent.
Campbell was stopped only after he violated the right of way of an SUV by making an improper right turn, Fernandez said. It was Campbell's second DUI arrest.
Fernandez said he could not release the car to Personius because she turned out to have a suspended license and appeared to have been drinking. A couple came to pick her up.
Asked if his goal sitting there for an hour on stake-out was to wait for Campbell to drive, the sergeant said, "My main goal was if a drunk driver drove off was to stop him." If while he was waiting he'd seen a crash or gotten a call, he would have left, he said.
Cell phones — and the texts and calls on them that night — are expected to be at the center of ongoing investigations by state prosecutors, the Bar, and the FBI, which is looking into whether Campbell's rights were violated using police authority. The FBI recently seized cellphones from both Fernandez and attorney Stephen Diaco, and perhaps others.
Diaco and Personius, the paralegal, were asked to bring their cellphones to court during a mistrial hearing after allegations of a setup broke during the trial. Neither did.
Mark J. O'Brien, Filthaut's attorney, said in a written statement Friday that while it is understandable that the public is intrigued by "the salacious yet unproven allegations," Filthaut committed no crime. No one forced Campbell, lead attorney in a trial that day, to make the "dangerous decision" to drink and drive that night, he wrote.
"Mr. Campbell was not arrested by the Tampa Police Department because of a criminal conspiracy," O'Brien wrote. "Mr. Campbell was arrested because he committed a traffic infraction, failed field sobriety exercises and refused to take a breath alcohol sample."
Myles Malman, a Fort Lauderdale attorney representing the Adams & Diaco firm, said, "The firm and Mr. (Stephen) Diaco continue to deny any wrongdoing in this incident whatsoever."
Personius' lawyer Norman Cannella Jr. recently told the Times there was no plot to get Campbell arrested. This week attorney Todd Foster, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, confirmed he, too, was representing Personius.
Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said this week, "Our Internal Affairs is actively working with the FBI to get to the bottom of what happened that night."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report.