A judge on Thursday recommended that three Tampa lawyers be permanently barred from practicing law for their involvement in a conspiracy to have an opposing attorney arrested during a high-profile trial in 2013.
Rejecting the defense's arguments that the lawyers were merely helping local police get a drunken driver off of city streets, Pinellas Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird found the men's actions "inexplicably egregious, spiteful, and malicious."
He proposed that all three receive the most severe punishment allowed, a recommendation that is subject to the Florida Supreme Court's final approval.
In a 72-page report, Baird described in detail how Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut — all employees of the Adams & Diaco firm — orchestrated the DUI arrest of C. Philip Campbell in order to gain an advantage for their client during a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit. Their firm was representing radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem against his rival, Todd "MJ" Schnitt. At the time, Campbell was the attorney for Schnitt.
Baird wrote that even before the Schnitt vs. Clem trial — a public spectacle in and of itself — the Adams & Diaco lawyers had attempted to have Campbell arrested. Filthaut had used his close friendship with Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez to call in a favor.
"There's this guy that works in my building. He's an attorney. He gets drunk all the time," Filthaut told Fernandez, the commander of the city's DUI squad, according to Fernandez's deposition. Filthaut passed along Campbell's name, never mentioning that he was an opposing attorney.
When that attempt failed, the lawyers tried again. On Jan. 23, 2013, acting on her boss's orders, a paralegal named Melissa Personius spied Campbell having after-work drinks with a colleague at Malio's, a downtown bar and steakhouse. While flirting with him, lying to him about where she worked, and eventually getting him to take the wheel of her car, Personius kept the lawyers apprised of Campbell's whereabouts.
They made sure a Tampa police officer was waiting outside the bar.
"As Mr. Campbell pulled out of Malio's parking lot at approximately 9:57 p.m. that night, the Respondents and their employee, Ms. Personius, knew that the trap was set," the judge wrote in his report.
"This malicious tampering with another person's personal life and career was not only unprofessional, it was inexcusable," he added later.
Although the lawyers and paralegal saw to it that most of the text messages they sent that night were erased or never found, the records of their constant communication suggested they were all active participants in both the arrest and attempts to cover it up, the judge wrote. Their actions were not only harmful to Campbell, Baird noted, but had also damaged the legal profession and the public's confidence in the justice system.
Defense attorney Greg Kehoe said the lawyers would appeal the judge's recommendation to the state Supreme Court.
"We stand on the premise that his recommendation is not supported by the facts," he said.
In addition to quashing the defense's hopes of avoiding permanent disbarment, Baird also rejected the Bar's recommendations as too lenient. The Bar had argued while Diaco deserved to have his law license permanently revoked, Adams and Filthaut should be disbarred temporarily, with the opportunity to reapply after five years.
But the judge disagreed. In his report, he wrote that Adams' testimony "defied common sense." He described Filthaut's argument that he was acting on Diaco's instructions as a "variation of the Nuremberg Defense."
That Filthaut would use his 15-year friendship with Fernandez, who was later fired from the Police Department, "remains stunning," Baird wrote.
Throughout the trial and sentencing phase, Diaco and Filthaut chose not to testify, citing the possibility of self-incrimination. The FBI has been investigating the lawyers' actions for more than two years. But their decision also cost them. Unlike in criminal proceedings, where invoking the Fifth Amendment can't be used against a defendant, the rules of disciplinary hearings allow judges to draw negative conclusions from silence. Baird wrote that had Diaco and Filthaut chosen to answer questions, their answers would have likely revealed their involvement in Campbell's arrest.
Permanent disbarment used to be a rare punishment for attorneys, said Scott Tozian, who represents lawyers in trouble with the Bar. But increasingly, the state Supreme Court is dealing more harshly with lawyers found guilty of misconduct, he said.
"I think Judge Baird's recommendation is in keeping with what he knows to be the trend of the court," said Tozian, who briefly represented Campbell before his DUI charge was dropped. "It is cast iron, copper riveted, and air tight in my opinion. I certainly don't like the respondents' chances on appeal."
Campbell's attorney John Fitzgibbons called the judge's report "a devastating condemnation."
"They will never see the inside of a courtroom again as lawyers," he said. "They are finished."