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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Disbarment right punishment in Hillsborough scandal

A Pinellas County judge made the only right decision Thursday by recommending that the three Tampa lawyers involved in the setup arrest of a rival attorney be permanently disbarred from the practice of law in Florida. The Florida Supreme Court should uphold the finding to restore public confidence in the state's criminal justice system.

The recommendation from Pinellas Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird reflects the seriousness of a case that demands unsparing discipline from the state's legal profession. Baird had already concluded after a disciplinary trial earlier this year that lawyers Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut conspired to arrange the drunken-driving arrest of rival attorney C. Philip Campbell in 2013 in an effort to gain an advantage in a multi-million dollar defamation suit. The lawsuit pitted their firms' client, radio jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, against his radio rival, Todd "MJ" Schnitt, whom Campbell represented.

Baird's trial ruling affirmed the blistering report by the special prosecutor in the case, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, who found a paralegal for Adams & Diaco had met with Campbell in a downtown Tampa bar, lied about where she worked and drank and flirted with him — all while texting her bosses. They in turn induced a "close, personal friend" of Filthaut's who headed the Tampa Police Department's drunken-driving squad to stake out the bar and pull Campbell over as he moved the paralegal's car.

Baird has been on top of this case from the start, rejecting a lenient plea deal and calling out in clear and honest language the lawyers' deplorable misconduct and the stain that it left on the legal profession. He found that the three "conspired among themselves" and others "to deliberately and maliciously" affect Campbell's arrest "solely to obtain an advantage" in an active trial. In his recommendation for sanctions Thursday, Baird wrote the three engaged in a sustained effort "to place a heavy finger on the scale of justice," adding that "the public's confidence in justice was simply collateral damage."

"If the coverup had succeeded, Mr. Campbell would have been the attorney answering charges from the Florida Bar," the judge noted. "This malicious tampering with another person's personal life and career was not only unprofessional, it was inexcusable."

Baird presents the high court with a clear and convincing case for permanently disbarring all three. There is no corner in the legal profession for those who would manipulate the courts and the police, and there should be no shading of culpability for the three lawyers involved. This arrest was a team effort, and it is extraordinary that it ever made the light of day.

The Florida Supreme Court will send a message to the legal profession and the public with the punishment it hands down. The only appropriate sanction is permanent disbarment for all three, with the hope that the end of these careers will only inspire a renewed commitment within the Bar to integrity and justice.