The misconduct charges the Florida Bar voted to pursue against three Tampa attorneys should finally bring some clarity to an explosive legal scandal. It is essential for public confidence in the justice system that the legal profession's disciplinary arm resolve whether members of the Tampa firm violated Bar rules by helping to arrange the drunken-driving arrest of a rival lawyer in a high-stakes civil suit. The case smelled from the start, but only the lowliest heads have rolled. It's high time the Bar judged the conduct of its members in this sordid case.
The Bar's grievance committee found probable cause last week that attorneys Robert Adams, Stephen Diaco and Adam Filthaut committed misconduct in a case involving the arrest of rival attorney C. Philip Campbell. The attorneys were on opposite sides of a bitter civil suit between warring radio shock jocks Bubba the Love Sponge Clem and "MJ" Schnitt. One evening in January 2013, after a day in trial, police arrested Campbell after he left a downtown Tampa bar. Almost immediately, it was learned that the tip-off to police came from employees of the Adams and Diaco firm.
A special prosecutor appointed by the governor found that a paralegal for Adams and Diaco had recognized Campbell in the bar. Melissa Personius lied about where she worked and flirted and drank with Campbell while texting her bosses at the firm. Filthaut gave a play-by-play report to a "close, personal" friend who happened to head the Tampa Police Department's DUI squad. Sgt. Ray Fernandez, in turn, organized a stakeout, and Campbell was pulled over as he left the bar to move Personius' car to a nearby lot.
The special prosecutor dropped the DUI charge, saying the flurry of messages between the Adams and Diaco employees and Fernandez amounted to a collaboration "to effectuate the arrest." Tampa police later fired Fernandez and disciplined the arresting officer for being rude and confrontational. As part of the fallout, the Tampa Police Department changed its policies for handling DUI cases, and Hillsborough County prosecutors dropped 12 DUI cases in which Fernandez was a witness. And last week, in announcing it would proceed with charges, the Bar confirmed that the Justice Department, the FBI and a federal grand jury were investigating whether these attorneys conspired with police to violate Campbell's civil rights.
The Bar has fulfilled its public duty by taking the case seriously, and it should proceed to the next step by seeking the appointment of a judge to act as a referee to determine any guilt and recommended disciplinary action. Though the final say on the case rests with the Florida Supreme Court, the Bar deserves credit for recognizing the public interests at play in maintaining the ethical standards of the legal profession. Federal investigators should work to bring their inquiry to a conclusion, too, to give the attorneys the fairest and fullest opportunity possible to defend themselves and to help restore public confidence in the criminal justice system.