Florida Supreme Court justices expressed disdain Thursday for the conduct of three Tampa lawyers who orchestrated the DUI arrest of a rival amid a high-profile lawsuit involving two radio shock jocks.
One of the three, Stephen Diaco, has already accepted permanent disbarment.
The other two, Robert D. Adams and Adam Filthaut, were before the court asking for a less severe form of disbarment that would allow them to reapply for admission to the Florida Bar after five years.
But Adams' attorney, William Jung, barely got started on his oral argument before the scolding began. Jung recalled Adams' prior testimony that he had never before committed such an error in judgment.
"I would hope not," Justice R. Fred Lewis shot back. "I have never encountered behavior like this, and calculated and planned behavior. This is not, 'Okay, I made a mistake. I shouldn't have signed that check.' "
Adams' attorney said it would be inconsistent with precedent to impose permanent disbarment.
But Lewis responded, "It could be we've never seen a case this bad. Is that possible?"
In August, Pinellas Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird, acting as a Bar referee, found Diaco, Adams and Filthaut responsible for arranging the Jan. 23, 2013, arrest of opposing counsel C. Philip Campbell.
It was a coordinated assault of flirtation and text messaging, sealed by a friendship with a Tampa cop.
Campbell, then 64, was representing radio personality Todd "MJ" Schnitt, who had a defamation lawsuit pending against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. The firm of Adams & Diaco, where Filthaut also worked, represented Clem.
One of its paralegals, Melissa Personius, spotted Campbell drinking at Malio's in downtown Tampa and let her boss know. That was Adams. The lawyers made sure a Tampa police officer was waiting when Campbell took the wheel of the paralegal's car, according to testimony. The officer, Sgt. Ray Fernandez, has since been fired.
Justice Barbara Pariente called the lawyers' conduct "egregious" and "outrageous." Chief Justice Jorge Labarga asked why no one had said, "I can't do this. This is wrong. I'm out of here."
The court did not immediately rule Thursday. In arguments, attorneys for Adams and Filthaut tried to distance the actions of their clients from those of Diaco, casting him as an instigator with more to gain by discrediting Campbell.
Jung said Adams was never in the courtroom during the civil case of the radio personalities, which went on for years. Diaco, not Adams, had publicly disparaged Campbell over the setup DUI arrest. Filthaut, not Adams, knew the police officer.
Mark O'Brien, who represents Filthaut, said a phone call to the cop was his client's only mistake.
"Mr. Filthaut would not have been involved if not for his friendship with the officer," O'Brien said.
He characterized Filthaut as a "citizen informer" tipping off a DUI cop as he had done before. But Pariente wasn't buying that Filthaut acted out of vigilance.
"Come on," she scoffed.
Florida Bar attorney Jodi Thompson said Filthaut's role was an important one.
"Mr. Filthaut was the ingredient in the conspiracy that made it work," she said. "Without Mr. Filthaut's close personal friendship with a law enforcement officer who trusted him and didn't have a suspicion of what was going on, this would not have happened."
O'Brien suggested Filthaut was manipulated into his role by Diaco. But Justice Peggy Quince said Filthaut could have walked away.
Justice Charles Canady said even people with less culpability than others may be eligible for the highest sanction.
"There's not an unlimited range of punishment," he said.
"Perhaps if something more could have been done," he said, referring to Diaco, "it would be done."
Patty Ryan can be reached at (813) 226-3382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.