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Citing setup, prosecutors drop DUI charge against Todd 'MJ' Schnitt's attorney

TAMPA — At the cozy downtown bar that January night, the text messages and cellphone calls flew fast and furious — more than 200 before the evening was over.

A paralegal texted her bosses even as she flirted with a lawyer who didn't know she worked for the very firm he faced off against that day in court. One of those bosses called his friend on the police force, who sat outside Malio's Prime Steakhouse restaurant and bar for nearly three hours, the two texting back and forth 92 times.

In the middle of it sat lawyer C. Philip Campbell Jr. — who didn't plan on driving that night because his downtown apartment was two blocks away — unaware he was about to get popped for DUI.

And after Campbell was taken to jail came another call: to radio show host Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, the defendant Campbell had opposed in court.

In the end, the tale told by the calls and texts that night helped persuade prosecutors to drop the drunken driving charge against Campbell, 65, and use words like "collaboration" and "organized effort" to refer to his arrest in a report issued Monday.

"The intensity of the communication," said William Loughery, a prosecutor with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which was called in to investigate, "was jaw-dropping."

"It is now absolutely clear that Mr. Campbell was the victim of a devious setup," said his attorney, John Fitzgibbons. "And all honest and ethical police officers and lawyers should be deeply troubled over what happened."

The prosecutors' report pulled the lid off a case that has been the talk of the legal community and beyond.

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor backed off her previously unequivocal support of the officers involved, releasing a written statement: "It is clear that Sgt. Ray Fernandez utilized bad judgment when he failed to remove himself from this investigation. He should have assigned it to an officer who did not have a personal connection to the tip."

She declined questions because the FBI is investigating.

Greg Kehoe, with the law firm Greenberg Traurig, released this statement on behalf of Adams & Diaco, the law firm representing Clem: "We respect the system and the decision made today by the State Attorney's office as part of the process. Given that investigations into this matter are continuing, we cannot comment further at this time."

Clem made his own remarks on Twitter: "This setup nonsense has nothing to do with me or the fact that a jury of my peers found in my favor vs Todd Schnitt. This was just another weak attempt from the losers to justify why they got their a-- kicked in court by me/jay diaco."

Todd Foster, attorney for the paralegal, Melissa Personius, said, "There are assumptions and conclusions made in that report that lack foundation. . . . I just think it's a very unfair portrayal."

It all started with a five-year civil defamation suit between competing radio jocks Bubba the Love Sponge and "MJ" Schnitt. During the dispute, lawyerly advocacy turned to animosity.

Adams & Diaco attorneys repeatedly filed motions to get Campbell off the case. None worked.

The findings released Monday contain new details of what happened that night, which was during the trial's second week in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

About 5:30 p.m. Jan. 23, a Wednesday, Campbell stopped by Malio's, which is walking distance from his office and apartment. He previously had a DUI arrest.

Personius, a paralegal for Adams & Diaco, was already there. She and a friend walked by Campbell as they were leaving.

She soon called her boss Robert Adams from the Fly Bar and said she could go back to Malio's "if they need anything."

Personius, then 30, returned to the bar and sat with Campbell, then 64. She ordered wine and called lawyer Adam Filthaut with the Adams & Diaco firm.

At 6:31 p.m., Filthaut called his close friend Sgt. Ray Fernandez — saying Campbell was at Malio's, warning that he was drunk and going to drive.

Fernandez then staked out Malio's and had another officer sit in a nearby parking garage.

But Campbell was not drunk when the tip came. It was still early, and the report states that "Campbell was likely having his first drink and would later be walking home."

Over the next two hours, Personius lied about where she worked, flirted and ordered drinks. She bought Campbell a vodka cocktail and shot of Southern Comfort.

She also stayed in touch with Adams & Diaco lawyers to such a degree that Loughery wrote the "extraordinary amount of time and effort" makes it clear that Personius was in an undercover role and made sure "all the parties knew exactly what was transpiring virtually every minute."

During one 14-minute window starting at 7:05 p.m., she called Adams and texted Filthaut and Diaco. Adams called Diaco. Diaco called Filthaut and Adams and texted Personius. Filthaut texted Sgt. Fernandez four times and Personius twice and called her five times. Filthaut called Adams twice, and Fernandez texted Filthaut four times.

None of those texts was saved.

At 9:30 p.m., Personius and Campbell left Malio's together. He drove her car. Fernandez pulled him over five blocks away. Tampa officer Timothy McGinnis did a field sobriety test.

In a police cruiser's dashboard camera video, it appears that Campbell is not intoxicated, the report states. His speech and balance seem fine. The officers' credibility would be questioned in court, the report states.

The next day, Clem's attorneys told reporters that Campbell's arrest was appalling.

Loughery called their bluff in his report.

"The public relations mantra from Adams & Diaco has been that they were only helping get a drunk driver off the streets," he wrote. "This rings hollow when you consider the time, effort and subterfuge used by them to get Campbell on the streets."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@tampabay.com.

The major players

Even the lawyers have lawyers in the Tampa tale of an alleged DUI set-up. A few key characters:

C. Philip Campbell Jr., 65, is a partner with Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Tampa, specializing in First Amendment law and business litigation. He represented the Schnitts in the fiery defamation trial against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Stephen Diaco, 44, is a former boxing promoter who graduated from Stetson University College of Law. He chairs the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority, leads a law firm that employs 120 and hosts a weekly Internet radio show on the Bubba Radio Network. His firm represented Clem.

Melissa Personius, 31, is a paralegal with the law firm Adams & Diaco who met up with Campbell at the bar at Malio's that night. He was arrested driving her car.

Adam Filthaut is a partner in the Adams & Diaco Tampa office. He graduated from Thomas M. Cooley Law School and early in his career worked as a Hillsborough assistant public defender. Now he focuses on civil litigation and insurance defense.

Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, 40, is a longtime DUI officer and a close friend of Adam Filthaut's.

Bernie McCabe is the longtime Pinellas-Pasco state attorney. His office was assigned to handle the Tampa DUI charge against Campbell by the governor because the Hillsborough state attorney was a witness in the defamation trial.

Citing setup, prosecutors drop DUI charge against Todd 'MJ' Schnitt's attorney 07/29/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 30, 2013 12:40am]

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