TAMPA — Calling it "among the most shocking, unethical and unprofessional" conduct they had ever witnessed by lawyers, the justices of the Florida Supreme Court made it both official and unanimous Thursday:
All three Tampa attorneys who set up opposing counsel for a DUI arrest during a bare-knuckles trial in 2013 can never be lawyers in this state again.
Though they hoped for a sentence short of forever, Robert Adams, 47, and Adam Filthaut, 42, are now permanently disbarred. Stephen Diaco, 47, was banned from practicing law for life in January.
It was a tawdry, improbable tale with a plot straight out of a Grisham novel. Radio personality Todd "MJ" Schnitt was suing shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem for defamation in what had become a courtroom cage match.
One night after trial, a young paralegal for the Adams & Diaco firm representing Clem spotted Schnitt's lawyer, C. Philip Campbell, at the downtown Malio's Steakhouse bar with his co-counsel. She called her bosses. As the night wore on, she exchanged dozens of texts and calls with them — and they with each other — as she slid on a bar stool next to Campbell, flirted, bought drinks and drank with him.
Meanwhile, Filthaut, another Adams & Diaco lawyer, was phoning a close family friend: a Tampa police DUI sergeant who set up a stakeout for Campbell. According to an investigation, Campbell intended to walk the few blocks home to his downtown apartment, but the paralegal persuaded him to drive her in her car. Sgt. Ray Fernandez pulled him over a few blocks away. Campbell, now 68, was charged with DUI and taken to jail.
Diaco told reporters the next day: "The whole thing makes me ashamed to be an attorney."
But the story quickly unraveled with the revelation of all those phone calls and texts. Assigned to Campbell's DUI case, Pinellas prosecutors dropped the charge and issued a thick and damning report describing an "undercover" paralegal and detailing a setup. The report concluded that while Adams & Diaco lawyers insisted they were getting a drunken driver off the streets, they instead put considerable "time, effort and subterfuge" into getting him on the streets.
Neither Adams nor his attorney returned a reporter's calls for comment Thursday. Filthaut's lawyer, Mark O'Brien, said in an email: "Adam is disappointed but he has moved forward with his life. We will take no further legal action on his behalf."
Campbell's attorney, John Fitzgibbons, said what the Supreme Court wrote was "simply blistering and condemned in no uncertain terms the conduct of three crooked lawyers."
"Diaco, Adams and Filthaut are totally finished as lawyers," Fitzgibbons said. "And deservedly so."
The Supreme Court noted that the lawyers seemed to consider any harm done — whether to Campbell, a fellow attorney, to Sgt. Fernandez, who was fired, and to public confidence in the legal profession — "simply collateral damage."
Their actions "constituted a deliberate and malicious effort to place a heavy finger on the scales of justice for the sole benefit of themselves and their client," the opinion said.
A Florida Bar referee assigned to the matter found the lawyers' lack of remorse "stunning."
Tampa lawyer Scott Tozian, who handles disciplinary cases against lawyers and judges, said it is highly unlikely this disbarment decision could be appealed.
"They left not even a glimmer of hope in the way that opinion is written," Tozian said. "It would be a waste of time."
Times senior researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Sue Carlton at [email protected]