Friday, November 24, 2017
Public safety

Tampa sergeant in controversial DUI stop moved to other duties


TAMPA — The Tampa police sergeant who pulled over lawyer C. Philip Campbell Jr. on Jan. 23 has been temporarily moved from his position as DUI supervisor, the agency said Tuesday.

Sgt. Ray Fernandez will not patrol Tampa's streets while the FBI investigates the controversial DUI stop, which came under scrutiny after allegations that an opposing law firm set up Campbell for an arrest during a bitter court battle.

The FBI launched its inquiry in April. Fernandez was taken off the streets in May, the agency confirmed. He currently works in the special operations division, which coordinates security at city events among other tasks, in a move the department said was not disciplinary.

The action is one glimpse of the fallout from the eyebrow-raising DUI arrest that interrupted the second week of a civil defamation trial pitting Bubba the Love Sponge Clem against radio rival Todd "MJ" Schnitt. In a twist that was the talk of the courthouse, Campbell's firm said he was set up by Clem's attorneys from the Adams & Diaco law firm — and a Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office memo released Monday backs up that allegation.

According to the report, an Adams & Diaco paralegal lied about where she worked and bought Campbell drinks at Malio's Prime Steakhouse that night. Three hours later, they left together and she insisted she needed her car. All the while, she was calling and texting her bosses, who in turn kept Sgt. Fernandez informed as he waited outside.

Prosecutors announced Monday after a six-month investigation that Campbell will not face a DUI charge, given the circumstances of his arrest.

But the case is far from closed, and several players in the saga could still face consequences.

The FBI is investigating. The Florida Bar is scrutinizing three Adams & Diaco lawyers. Its discipline, if any, could range from admonishment to disbarment.

The first glimpse of the FBI's involvement came in May, when federal agents seized cellphones presumably used in the flurry of calls and texts that night between Adams & Diaco lawyers, the paralegal and the police sergeant.

Lawyer Stephen Diaco's attorney at the time said the search warrant indicated investigators were focusing on whether Campbell's civil rights were violated. It's a federal crime to use police or other government power to deny someone's constitutional rights.

Lawyers Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut were all invited to give testimony in the state investigation, but declined. It is unclear whether the lawyers are cooperating in the federal investigation.

Melissa Personius is the paralegal at the Adams & Diaco firm who flirted with Campbell in the bar that night. Under subpoena, she gave a sworn statement to state investigators in which she "appeared heavily coached in her answers and attitude," had "selective memory" and "cited memory loss on almost everything important," the report concluded.

Todd Foster, her attorney, would not say whether she had appeared before a federal grand jury.

Fernandez and the officer who conducted Campbell's field sobriety test, Officer Tim McGinnis, are both cooperating with the FBI, according to a Tampa police spokeswoman. McGinnis remains on the DUI squad.

Experienced federal lawyers say investigators may be looking into conspiracy or obstruction charges. According to the state prosecutors' report, Fernandez exchanged 92 texts that night with his good friend Filthaut, a lawyer with the Diaco firm who tipped him that Campbell was about to drive drunk.

Fernandez told state investigators he accidentally deleted the texts the next day.

The Tampa Police Department did not open an internal investigation on either officer when the accusations flew in late January. Instead, the agency maintained the pair were unwitting pawns in a law firm drama.

A rule in the department's policy manual says officers cannot use police authority to "resolve personal matters nor the matters of friends, relatives or neighbors." Filthaut and Fernandez are friends.

Tampa police initially said that rule did not apply because Fernandez believed he was responding to a credible tip about a person with a history of driving under the influence. Campbell had pleaded no contest after a 2008 DUI arrest.

Monday, however, police Chief Jane Castor released a statement saying Fernandez should have passed that tip to another officer to avoid "any potential appearance of impropriety."

Fernandez's attorney, David Dee, takes issue with the chief's statement. He said Tuesday he believes his client had a responsibility to respond to the tip about a drunken driver. "It probably would have been a dereliction in duty if he didn't," said Dee.

Police do not plan to start their own query as long as the FBI's case is open.

Meanwhile, a Florida Bar investigation into Diaco, Adams and Filthaut continues. A grievance committee will decide whether the lawyers broke any rules and whether discipline is warranted. The Bar's findings would become public if investigators decide there is probable cause.

Is the Bar considering the Pinellas-Pasco state attorney's 24-page memo and its findings? The Bar would not say, though Kenneth Marvin, director of lawyer regulation, said Tuesday it "will obtain all available information."

If the committee finds probable cause, the Florida Bar will file a formal complaint against the lawyers with the Florida Supreme Court, and it could head its way toward a non-jury trial.

Legal observers say discipline tends to be harder when the allegations reflect badly on the legal profession as a whole — stealing client money rather than, say, marijuana possession.

Most cases are settled, though, before they make it that far.

Times staff writer Curtis Krueger and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3433. Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3376.

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