TAMPA — The paralegal at the center of scandalous allegations of a DUI setup talked to prosecutors behind closed doors Thursday.
But the attorney for Melissa Personius contends there was no plot by the paralegal's bosses to get C. Philip Campbell, their opposing counsel, arrested on a DUI charge in the middle of a heated trial.
"It wasn't like, 'Get this guy drunk, get him in a car so we can get him busted.' Nothing like that," attorney Norman Cannella Jr. said Friday. Campbell "was unfolding his own demise himself."
The firm where Personius works, Adams & Diaco, had been squaring off in court against Campbell in the defamation trial of radio DJs Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and Todd "MJ" Schnitt. On the night of Jan. 23, Campbell, 65, was drinking at Malio's Prime Steakhouse bar downtown when Personius, 30, walked in.
She did not tell him she worked for opposing counsel. They drank together and left together, and within minutes Campbell was pulled over at the wheel of her car. It was his second DUI arrest.
Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez later said he got the tip about Campbell drinking from a close friend who is an attorney with Adams & Diaco, and that police sat on the scene for a period of time.
Cannella's comments were the first glimpse of what a defense might look like if this eyebrow-raising case results in criminal charges.
Multiple texts and phone calls between Personius, the lawyers and police that night are expected to be at the center of a separate federal investigation into whether Campbell's civil rights were violated and police power misused. This week the FBI seized cellphones from attorney Stephen Diaco and Sgt. Fernandez, and perhaps others.
Cannella said his client was indeed texting with attorneys from her firm at the bar that night, telling them she saw Campbell there. He said they asked her to tell them what he was doing and if he continued to drink.
But Cannella denied that Personius went looking for Campbell or had instructions from her bosses to drink with him.
"There was no one holding a gun to his head making him drink," Cannella said. "This is nothing more than someone seeing an individual at a bar having a lot of drinks" and calling it in to say the person is leaving.
Campbell's attorney John Fitzgibbons declined to respond to specifics, saying, "I'm not going to get into a blow-by-blow discussion at this time. The investigations are totally in the hands of very competent state and federal prosecutors, and I am confident they will act appropriately after they have reviewed all the facts and evidence."
Personius spoke Thursday with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which was specially assigned to investigate the DUI because the Hillsborough state attorney was a witness in the DJ trial. They talked for about 2 1/2 hours without her attorney permitted in the room, Cannella said. She was given "use immunity," meaning what she said can't be used against her, he said.
Friday, Cannella said state prosecutors had gone beyond their assignment in a "witch hunt."
"It's rather clear to me they do not care one bit about the DUI involving Phil Campbell," Cannella said. "All the questions were basically a conspiracy theory they have going that Phil Campbell was set up." Most of the questions had to do with text messages and phone calls between her and lawyers at her firm, he said.
Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors previously said they intended to talk to "other people who were involved in the circumstances" that led to the DUI charge, presumably police, Personius and others, before deciding what to do with Campbell's case.
Friday, state attorney Bernie McCabe said, "We're investigating all of the circumstances surrounding the incident. I really couldn't care less what he thinks."
FBI spokesman Dave Couvertier said Friday that the federal agency has been getting cooperation and assistance from Tampa police Chief Jane Castor and her department.
"The FBI will independently analyze all of the facts related to this matter and follow the evidence to a logical conclusion to determine if any federal laws have been violated," Couvertier said in a prepared statement.
Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.