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Judge rejects plea bargain for lawyers in DUI set-up case

Stephen Diaco 46, had offered to surrender his law license in order to protect the firm of Adams & Diaco, where he is a partner. [Times files (2013)]
Stephen Diaco 46, had offered to surrender his law license in order to protect the firm of Adams & Diaco, where he is a partner. [Times files (2013)]
Published Mar. 27, 2015

TAMPA — Calling the punishments "disproportionate and unacceptable," a Pinellas judge Thursday rejected plea agreements for three Tampa lawyers accused of orchestrating the drunken driving arrest of an opposing lawyer.

Pinellas-Pasco Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird, presiding over the disciplinary proceeding, said in a written decision that the sanctions outlined in the agreement between the lawyers and the Florida Bar do not correspond to the serious allegations they face. He called for a trial with "actual testimony with vigorous cross-examination" — even if the lawyers refuse to say a word on the stand.

Accused by the Bar of misconduct, unfairness to opposing counsel and disrupting court, the three lawyers from the firm of Adams & Diaco agreed to sanctions that would allow them to avert a week-long trial. Under the terms of the deal, Stephen Diaco, 46, would surrender his law license, an offer designed to protect the firm where he is a partner. Robert Adams, 45, and Adam Filthaut, 40, agreed to 91-day suspensions, after which they would have to secure the state Supreme Court's permission to practice law again.

It was the lighter sanctions for Adams and Filthaut that irked the judge, who singled that out for criticism in his decision. But because each half of the deal was contingent on the other — "all or nothing," as the attorneys put it — the judge rejected it in its entirety. He set a trial date of March 31.

"The Florida Bar needs to stop caving in to the lawyers' demands for a sweetheart deal," said John Fitzgibbons, an attorney representing C. Philip Campbell, the lawyer allegedly targeted by the three. "Stop the plea bargaining, and go try this case."

Greg Kehoe, the attorney representing Diaco, Adams and Filthaut, did not respond to a reporter's request for comment. Through a spokesperson, Bar attorneys declined to discuss the judge's decision.

From the moment the details of the agreement became public earlier this week, lawyers across the Tampa Bay area have expressed incredulity at its leniency. One lawyer sarcastically called it "the deal of the year." Others worried that it would set an alarming precedent, enabling lawyers facing criminal investigations and Bar complaints to hide behind empty plea agreements.

"You've got a set of facts that was pretty egregious, to say the least," said Tampa defense attorney Rick Terrana. "When you consider that, and consider what they ended up with, I think they came out smelling like roses."

That's how the situation appeared to many on Tuesday, when Baird called attorneys for both sides into court and forced them to discuss the agreements, negotiated in private for months amid an ongoing FBI investigation. Nowhere in the agreements did Diaco, Adams or Filthaut accept responsibility for the roles the Florida Bar accused them of playing in arranging the DUI arrest of a rival lawyer. Instead, they admitted only that they had "failed to supervise" Melissa Personius, a paralegal who was alleged to be one of the main actors in the incident.

What followed were pages listing the many ways the lawyers had contributed to society, given money to charities, and devoted themselves to pro-bono work. In his plea agreement, Diaco highlighted his "passionate" support for the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, perhaps to mitigate allegations that he, through Personius, cajoled an intoxicated lawyer to get behind the wheel.

Following an investigation by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, the Bar accused the three lawyers in June of 2014 of setting up a sting operation coordinated by text message.

In January 2013, Campbell was representing radio shock jock Todd Schnitt in a defamation case against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. Clem had retained Adams & Diaco as his counsel.

According to the Bar, one evening after trial, Campbell went to Malio's, a steakhouse bar in downtown Tampa, where he encountered an attractive young woman. Witnesses said she flirted with him and told him she worked at Trenam Kemker, a Tampa law firm.

In fact, the woman was Personius, the Adams & Diaco paralegal. 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, when Personius allegedly convinced Campbell to drive her home, he was pulled over by Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, a close family friend of 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.

Fernandez was eventually fired and the DUI charge against Campbell was dropped

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

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