Tuesday, October 23, 2018
News Roundup

Silence, surprises in first day of trial over DUI set-up during Bubba-Schnitt lawsuit

CLEARWATER — The disciplinary trial of three Tampa lawyers accused of orchestrating the DUI arrest of a rival attorney began Monday, with one offering to surrender his law license and another abruptly deciding to testify after years of silence.

In a case already filled with dramatic twists, attorney Stephen Diaco's announcement that he was petitioning the Florida Supreme Court to revoke his law license caught many by surprise.

Since January 2013, when attorney C. Philip Campbell was arrested for driving under the influence in Tampa, Diaco, 46, and his colleagues Robert Adams, 45, and Adam Filthaut, 40, have maintained that Campbell's problems were of his own making.

They have staunchly denied any role in arranging his arrest to get him removed from a multimillion dollar defamation lawsuit against one of their clients, radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. At the time, Campbell was representing Clem's rival, Todd Schnitt.

The Florida Bar has accused the three of misconduct, unfairness to opposing counsel and disrupting court, violations for which they could be disbarred. But Diaco could eventually ask to have his law license reinstated if the Supreme Court accepts his petition.

A spokeswoman for the Florida Bar said it has not dropped its charges against Diaco or the other two lawyers.

Though Diaco accepts no responsibility for Campbell's arrest in his petition, his move may have cleared a path for Adams and Filthaut to mount a defense that places much of the blame for the alleged set-up on Diaco and one of the firm's paralegals, Melissa Personius.

According to Mark O'Brien, Filthaut's attorney, Personius was told to watch Campbell to find out if he was going to drink and drive. Yet she went several steps too far, O'Brien said.

She "hatched a plan that went well beyond the scope of what she was told to do," he said.

When Personius, 32, was called to testify, she invoked the Fifth Amendment repeatedly. To questions about her actions the night of Campbell's arrest and the $10,000 bonus she received from the firm months later, she said simply, "I refuse to answer the question."

She remains an employee of the Adams & Diaco firm, which is paying her attorney's fees.

Diaco, who followed her, also refused to answer questions. Over and over, until his voice grew hoarse and he rubbed his eyes in frustration, he invoked his right to remain silent.

Their reticence was expected. Soon after Campbell's arrest, the FBI opened an investigation into the lawyers' actions. With the continuing threat of possible criminal prosecution hanging over them, Diaco, Adams and Filthaut have, for more than two years, refused to tell their stories.

Until recently, their only defense has been that Campbell chose to drink and get behind the wheel of Personius' car.

But that strategy began to change on Monday, when Adams, a partner in the firm, took the witness stand and announced that he would answer the Bar's questions.

"I realized that if I didn't take the stand and take responsibility for the lapse of judgment I had on January 23rd, and clear up some inaccuracies, I might lose my privilege to practice law," he told Pinellas-Pasco Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird.

Over several hours of testimony, Adams portrayed himself as a father so engrossed in work and watching his son's football game that he paid little attention to his colleagues' actions.

Although he knew Personius had gone to a bar to spy on Campbell, he said he never instructed her to do so. Nor, he said, did he order his colleague Filthaut to call a close family friend, Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, and ask him to monitor Campbell to see if he would drive drunk.

O'Brien said Filthaut made the call at Diaco's request.

The fact that Adams didn't prevent either of them from acting is "one of the worst mistakes I've made in my almost 46 years on this planet," he said.

The following day, when Adams learned that Campbell's belongings were still in Personius' car, he said he told Diaco to handle it. On the witness stand, he maintained he didn't know the object left behind was Campbell's briefcase containing his notes and trial strategy in the case against Clem.

Under questioning from Bar attorney Jodi Thompson, Adams said that after Campbell's arrest, he gave his cell phone to his attorney. The other lawyers at the firm did the same. Asked why he gave up his phone, Adams declined to answer.

The allegations of a set-up defy logic, he said. "To think that I would send my assistant . . . to sit next to (Campbell), to drink with him, to lie to him . . . is beyond imagination."

According to an investigation by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, one evening after trial Campbell went to Malio's, a steak house and bar in downtown Tampa, where he encountered Personius. Witnesses said she flirted with him and lied to him about where she worked, telling him she was employed at Trenam Kemker, another Tampa law firm.

Phone records would later show that over the next few hours, she texted and called her bosses multiple times. They, in turn, texted and called each other.

Although Campbell intended to walk to his downtown home from the bar, he later agreed to drive Personius in her car. Minutes after he got behind the wheel, he was pulled over by Fernandez. Records showed that Filthaut and Fernandez exchanged multiple calls and emails that evening, too.

After an internal investigation, the Tampa Police Department fired Fernandez.

Campbell's DUI charge was later dropped.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354. Follow @annamphillips.

     
               
Comments
Man fatally shoots stepfather, then himself in Tampa apartment, deputies say

Man fatally shoots stepfather, then himself in Tampa apartment, deputies say

TAMPA — A woman concerned that she hadn’t heard from her husband came home Tuesday to find that her adult son had killed the man and then himself, authorities said.Juan Luis Hernandez II, 30, shot himself after first killing his stepfather, Michael E...
Updated: 17 minutes ago

Updated: 29 minutes ago
Bucs rookies embrace ‘being a kid again’ at community event

Bucs rookies embrace ‘being a kid again’ at community event

TAMPA — M.J. Stewart proudly wore a pink feather boa picked out for him by a new friend. Carlton Davis and Ronald Jones wore sparkly party hats. Alex Cappa walked around with a star sticker on his forehead. Shaun Wilson and Jordan Whitehead com...
Updated: 1 hour ago
There were two fatal wrong-way crashes last weekend. Should we be worried?

There were two fatal wrong-way crashes last weekend. Should we be worried?

A Pinellas Park man made a U-turn on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Friday, driving in the wrong direction for several miles before crashing into a van. The wrong-way driver died at the scene.Two days later, a Seffner man with his headlights off drov...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Will the trade winds blow for the Bucs?

Will the trade winds blow for the Bucs?

TAMPA — The New Orleans Saints are going for it. That was the consensus of NFL analysts after they traded for Giants cornerback Eli Apple Tuesday.The Dallas Cowboys aren't going away. At 3-4 and winless on the road this season, owner/general ma...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Pinellas substitute teacher brings a gun to school, and is escorted out

Pinellas substitute teacher brings a gun to school, and is escorted out

Police removed a substitute teacher from Largo’s Anona Elementary School on Tuesday after discovering he was in possession of a gun, according to the Pinellas County school district.In a call to parents, principal Ann Welsh said the substitute, ident...
Updated: 2 hours ago
From FitzMagic to Red Tide, 6 very Florida Halloween costumes

From FitzMagic to Red Tide, 6 very Florida Halloween costumes

We’re here to help you put together costumes that portray sweaty life in the Sunshine State, with its stench of fish and cast of unforgettable characters.
Updated: 2 hours ago
Former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop as you’ve never seen him before

Former Lightning goalie Ben Bishop as you’ve never seen him before

It's been a few years since Ben Bishop suited up for the Lightning, so it's reasonable to think he might look a bit different than we remember.But, this?Bishop, now tending goal for the Stars, was the talk of the Twitter-verse after photos appeared o...
Updated: 2 hours ago
Tampa prosecutor: Yahoo agrees to $50M settlement for breaches

Tampa prosecutor: Yahoo agrees to $50M settlement for breaches

Yahoo! Inc. has agreed to a $50 million settlement that could benefit the millions of Americans and thousands of Israelis affected by three data breaches that began in 2013. In a filing late Monday, lead prosecutor John Yanchunis of Tampa asked a jud...
Updated: 2 hours ago
$22,000 worth of hope as 90 friends pool money for Mega Millions tickets

$22,000 worth of hope as 90 friends pool money for Mega Millions tickets

TAMPA — Ryan McGuinness is pooling money from nearly 90 friends to boost their chances of winning Tuesday night’s record $1.6 million Mega Millions jackpot drawing. His afternoon buy of 11,000 $2 tickets at the Metro Market in Ybor City was their fou...
Updated: 3 hours ago