City, state and federal agencies have plenty to investigate now that a special prosecutor has dropped drunken driving charges against a Tampa lawyer who was set up by a rival law firm and Tampa police. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe arrived at the right decision to dismiss the charges and provided new insight into a well-coordinated trap. Now other authorities must investigate just as vigorously to restore public confidence in the police and the legal system.
McCabe issued a blistering report Monday that targeted not Tampa lawyer Philip Campbell Jr. but the rival firm that authorities said targeted him. Campbell was arrested in January after being pulled over downtown by Tampa police. He refused a breath test and was taken to jail on a DUI charge. Almost immediately, Campbell's side claimed he was set up by a law firm representing radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, whom Campbell had been fighting in court on behalf of shock jock "MJ" Schnitt.
The governor appointed McCabe as special prosecutor, and McCabe's report describes a setup aimed at weakening an opponent's legal team in the midst of trial. McCabe found that a paralegal for the Adams & Diaco firm, which represented Clem and had repeatedly moved to get Campbell off the case, returned to a bar one January evening to chat up Campbell after checking with her bosses. Over the course of several hours, McCabe found, Melissa Personius lied about where she worked, flirted and ordered Campbell several drinks. All along she was calling and texting colleagues at the law firm, including attorney Adam Filthaut, who phoned a "close, personal" friend at Tampa police, Sgt. Ray Fernandez, who then staked out the bar along with another officer.
McCabe found that the flurry of texts and calls between the paralegal and lawyers in her firm made it clear Personius was using "subterfuge" and acting in an "undercover" role to have Campbell arrested, that Filthaut was acting as the connection between the paralegal in the bar and the police outside, and that all parties "knew exactly what was transpiring" virtually every minute. Campbell, who lives downtown and walked to the bar, was stopped and arrested after later giving in to Personius' requests to move her car to a nearby lot.
McCabe performed a public service by detailing an episode that looked rotten from the start. The FBI, which is investigating the case, needs to determine whether Campbell's civil rights were violated. The Florida Bar, which is investigating three lawyers at the Adams firm, should take seriously its duty to enforce high ethical standards. The justice system can't work if the public lacks confidence in the legal profession.
Police chief Jane Castor, whose office initially defended Fernandez by calling him "a pawn in this situation," moved in the right direction this week by criticizing his judgment and announcing that Fernandez had been placed on administrative duty. Removing him from the street was a smart move. But the chief still needs to answer why Fernandez should remain on the force, much less in a supervisory capacity.