Young paralegal at center of case involving Tampa lawyers, police sergeant

Melissa Personius, 31, called her boss that night.
Melissa Personius, 31, called her boss that night.
Published Aug. 4, 2013

TAMPA — The two young women who once worked together at a law firm met up for happy hour downtown that January night.

First they hit Malio's, a dark steak house bar favored by older men in expensive suits nursing Grey Goose, their briefcases like faithful dogs at their feet. Next was the trendier, throbbing Fly bar, filled with 20- and 30-somethings like themselves.

Melissa Personius, who worked as a paralegal, called her boss at the Adams & Diaco law firm.

She'd seen a lawyer at Malio's, she told him — one embroiled in a bitter court battle with their firm that very day.

And if her boss wanted, she said, she would go back.

Her friend Vanessa Fykes hadn't even finished her chardonnay when Personius wanted to go back to Malio's. Fykes assumed this Phil Campbell person she mentioned was some young guy Personius was interested in.

But back at Malio's, Personius slipped onto a bar stool next to a man in his 60s. She drank and flirted, playing with her long dark hair, Fykes later said.

Attorney C. Philip Campbell, then 64, would end this night in handcuffs, jailed on a DUI charge that prosecutors indicated last week was a setup involving members of the firm he was fighting in court.

The two women's words that night in the bar, appearing in sworn statements to prosecutors obtained by the Times, paint a fuller picture of the strange flirtations, frenzied phone calls, mysterious texts and elusive memories that have spurred a pending FBI investigation.

What, prosecutors asked Personius, had she meant that night when she offered to go back to Malio's if her bosses "needed anything," as she put it?

"I don't recall," she testified — again, and again, and again.

• • •

It would be hard to out-circus the circus that was January's nasty defamation trial between warring radio personalities Todd "MJ" Schnitt — represented by Campbell — and Bubba the Love Sponge Clem — represented by lawyers with Adams & Diaco.

But what happened after-hours in a bar in the middle of the trial did just that.

After a six-month investigation, the DUI charge was dropped. Now serious questions linger about the role of the lawyers, the veteran Tampa police DUI sergeant and the paralegal sitting beside Campbell that night.

She is 31, a single mother of two daughters who attended the University of South Florida for two semesters. She has worked for five years for Adams & Diaco, a firm specializing in insurance defense, personal injury and medical malpractice.

Personius worked almost exclusively for named partner Robert Adams, the man she texted about seeing Campbell at Malio's. He was the boss to whom she offered to go back "just to check."

"Whatever he needed," she said.

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Asked if the answer was yes or no, she said, "I don't remember how the response was given but — yes, I did go back."

Personius said Campbell's drinking was "shocking," given his previous DUI arrest and the fact that he was in a big trial at the time.

Her friend Fykes, then a 28-year-old clerk at the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, said that at Malio's, Personius had a few glasses of wine and a shot. She said Personius "was tipsy, getting drunk," being "loud" and "overly flirtatious." She remembered Personius telling Campbell she worked at different firm, not mentioning Adams & Diaco. Fykes eventually left, telling Personius to be careful and call a cab.

Personius told investigators she bought two Southern Comfort shots. She said Campbell initially declined but was urged to drink it by his lawyer friend. The prosecutor's report later observed she had apparently overcome her shock at his drinking.

During the hours they sat at the bar, multiple texts were exchanged between Personius and Adams & Diaco attorney Adam Filthaut.

Filthaut in turn exchanged multiple texts and calls with his good family friend, Tampa police Sgt. Ray Fernandez, who sat outside Malio's for at least two hours before Campbell and Personius came out.

Personius said Campbell suggested they walk a few blocks to his nearby condo so she could sober up. But she didn't want to leave her car there, saying she needed it to drive her kids in the morning. Then Campbell drove. They were pulled over a few blocks later after he cut over two lanes to make a turn, she said.

"This isn't good," she recalled Campbell saying. "This is bad."

After Campbell's arrest, a police officer said Personius was too drunk to drive and also noted her license was suspended. She called an Adams & Diaco lawyer, who came to drive her.

Allegations of a DUI setup may never have come if Campbell hadn't left his trial briefcase in Personius' car. That meant an Adams & Diaco employee had access to the opposing counsel's documents.

Lawyers were texting in the wee hours and into the next morning. Campbell's briefcase was returned to his firm, and it became a focal point of an unsuccessful motion for mistrial.

• • •

Personius, prosecutors would later say, was "in an 'undercover' role." Questioned in court, she pleaded the Fifth several times. Questioned by investigators, she remembered specifics of conversations with Campbell and his lawyer friend, with the parking valet and quoted Campbell's exchange with a police officer. But at least 25 times, she was hazy on details of her communications in dozens of texts and calls with Adams & Diaco lawyers that night.

"I don't remember the specific conversations," she said.

She recently hired attorney Todd Foster, a former FBI special agent and federal prosecutor. Around town, some wondered how a paralegal could afford such an attorney.

Asked who was paying — specifically, if it was the Adams & Diaco firm — Foster said, "The issue of who's paying my bills is beside the point. The fact of the matter is that I remain objective and committed to representing her, to representing her interests alone." He declined a request to interview his client and denied that Personius was involved in a setup.

This wasn't the first time the firm was accused of utilizing an undercover legal assistant. In 2010, a Miami chiropractor complained to the Florida Bar that two women came into his office days before he was to testify in a car crash case against an Adams' client. He said the women pretended to be potential patients with no insurance and tried to get him to reduce his fees — he believes so he could be accused of insurance fraud in the trial. One of the women, he said, turned out to be an Adams & Diaco paralegal. The Bar dismissed the complaint and the firm denied any wrongdoing.

• • •

Days after that strange night between bars, Fykes said, Personius left her a message saying an investigator from the firm would call her, only Personius wanted to talk first. Lawyer Stephen Diaco called and texted wishing her a happy birthday and saying he wanted to speak with her, she said. The firm's investigator called over and over. She didn't call back.

"Was there anything about the events of that night, now (that) you're looking back to the past, that suggests to you that Mr. Campbell was being set up by Melissa?" a prosecutor later asked her.

"Looking back . . .," Fykes said, "I can see how that would have taken place."

Staff writer Curtis Krueger contributed to this report.