Friday, July 20, 2018
Politics

Tampa lawyer in DUI scandal to leave expressway authority

TAMPA — A Tampa lawyer whose firm has been the focus of federal and Florida Bar investigations into the DUI arrest of an opposing lawyer during a high-profile trial has asked to leave the board of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority.

Stephen C. Diaco, 45, has been on the authority's board since 2007 and served as its chairman from 2009 until last week when the board, informed of his desire to leave, selected banker Curtis Stokes to replace him.

In a letter to Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Diaco said he does not want a third four-year term, which he said comes with an "enormous responsibility and time commitment."

"I ask that you replace me as soon as possible … so that I may return to my private practice, where I am responsible for 75 souls as well as my family," Diaco wrote Scott in June. "My two children are in high school now, and my wife and I need to focus all of our attention on them before they leave our nest."

Diaco said last week that his desire to leave has nothing to do with Bar or FBI investigations arising from a DUI arrest during the 2013 defamation trial between radio shock jocks Todd "MJ" Schnitt and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Then-Gov. Charlie Crist first appointed Diaco to the unpaid position on the expressway authority board, and Scott reappointed him. The authority owns and operates the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway. Its seven-member board includes four governor's appointees, plus Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller and Florida Department of Transportation district secretary Paul Steinman.

When Diaco joined the expressway authority, he said, it was mired in litigation over the collapse of an elevated section of the expressway during construction. But he said he worked to settle those claims at a minimal cost to the public, fought efforts to dismantle the agency, and helped to build its finances and expand its mission.

During those seven years, the authority went from being dependent on other agencies to becoming independent and putting itself on more secure financial footing, said Joseph Waggoner, its executive director.

"My board, and Mr. Diaco in particular, were a great benefit to this agency," he said.

Diaco said the governor's office has not indicated anything to him other than that he's welcome to stay.

"This has been going on for a year and a half," he said of the controversy, adding that he hasn't "gotten anything but wild support" from elected officials, friends and others.

Though his term expired in July, Diaco said Scott's appointments office asked him two weeks ago to serve until a replacement could be named.

"Our office is actively seeking a replacement for Mr. Diaco, and we hope to have an announcement soon," Scott spokesman John Tupps said Friday.

In July, after Diaco sent his letter to Scott, WTVT-Ch. 13 asked the governor if he wanted Diaco to continue to serve on the authority's board while the investigations were under way.

"I expect everybody that's appointed, every public official, to live up to the highest standards," Scott said, without addressing Diaco' status directly.

Diaco and two other lawyers at Adams & Diaco — Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut — could face admonishment, suspension or disbarment if found guilty of violating Florida Bar rules against misconduct, unfairness to opposing counsel and disrupting court.

In January 2013, after a day in court, Schnitt attorney C. Philip Campbell went to Malio's Prime Steakhouse in downtown Tampa.

There, Campbell, then 64, encountered Melissa Personius, a 30-year-old who worked as a paralegal at Adams & Diaco, which represented Clem. Personius sat next to Campbell, lied about where she worked, flirted and drank with him, according to witnesses.

But that wasn't the only conversation she had that night. She also was texting her employers. One of them, Filthaut, called Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, a close friend for 15 years.

Later that evening, Fernandez pulled Campbell over as he drove Personius in her car near Malio's. Campbell was arrested on a charge of DUI.

After the pre-arrest communications became public, police fired Fernandez and the FBI and a federal grand jury launched an investigation of the events leading up to the arrest. The DUI charge was dropped.

Last month, a judge ruled that the Bar's case against Diaco and the other two lawyers could go forward while the federal investigation continues, though certain records will not be made public.

As in the past, Diaco said last week that he and his colleagues did nothing wrong and expect to be cleared.

Contact Richard Danielson at r[email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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