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Judge denies delay in Diaco case, trial date set (w/video)

Under a rejected plea agreement, Stephen Diaco would have surrendered his license. 
Under a rejected plea agreement, Stephen Diaco would have surrendered his license. 
Published Mar. 31, 2015

CLEARWATER — A Pinellas judge has rejected an attempt to delay the disciplinary case against three Tampa lawyers accused of orchestrating the drunken-driving arrest of an opposing attorney in 2013.

Despite impassioned arguments from defense attorney Greg Kehoe, who said his clients cannot receive a fair hearing while they are also under investigation by the FBI, Pinellas-Pasco Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird said the case would proceed. He set the weeklong trial of the three lawyers from the firm of Adams & Diaco for May 11. Accused by the Florida Bar of misconduct, unfairness to opposing counsel and disrupting court, they could face sanctions up to and including disbarment.

Kehoe, evincing exasperation and repeatedly interrupting the judge, asked him to stay his decision. When this request was denied, he told the judge he would appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

According to Kehoe, six people who played central roles on the night that attorney C. Philip Campbell was arrested in downtown Tampa on a DUI charge are currently under investigation by a federal grand jury. If called to testify in the Florida Bar's disciplinary proceeding before Baird, all of them will invoke the right to remain silent so as not to incriminate themselves, he said.

Without those witnesses, Kehoe said he cannot put on a full defense. The six include the three lawyers from the firm of Adams & Diaco facing possible sanctions — Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut — as well as Melissa Personius, a paralegal, Brian Motroni, an associate attorney, and former Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, who was fired as a result of his involvement in the incident.

"It's difficult to believe how a vigorous debate about the facts will be brought before this court," Kehoe said.

As evidence that many facts remain in dispute, Kehoe said that Campbell himself refuted the Bar's accusation that Personius persuaded him to drive after he had been drinking for several hours. In fact, Kehoe said, Campbell testified under oath that no one told him to get behind the wheel.

"There will be ample opportunity to challenge the allegations of the Bar," the judge said, noting that similar arguments from the defense had failed to persuade him in the past. "It's obvious to me there's going to be some vigorous debate, some cross examination."

According to the Florida Bar, after a day in court during a high-profile trial against the Adams & Diaco firm, Campbell went to Malio's, a steakhouse bar in downtown Tampa, where he encountered Personius, the Adams & Diaco paralegal. Witnesses said she flirted with him and lied to him about where she worked, telling him she was employed at Trenam Kemker, a 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.

A few hours later, Campbell was driving Personius in her car a few blocks from Malio's when he was pulled over by Sgt. Fernandez — a close family friend of Adams & Diaco attorney Filthaut. Records showed that Filthaut and Fernandez had exchanged multiple calls and emails that evening, too.

Allegations of a DUI setup surfaced soon thereafter, when Campbell realized he had left his trial briefcase in the car of his opponents' paralegal. The DUI charge against him was later dropped.

Contact Anna M. Phillips at aphillips@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3354. Follow her @annamphillips.

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