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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Florida Bar still too lenient on lawyers in Tampa scandal

A Pinellas County judge is expected to recommend sanctions this month for three Tampa lawyers found to have set up the arrest of a rival attorney. The Florida Bar finally is starting to acknowledge the damage this scandal has caused to the legal profession and to public confidence in the judicial system, but its recommended penalties still fall short. Pinellas Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird better appreciates the seriousness of this case, and he should recommend that all three lawyers be permanently disbarred.

Following a disciplinary trial in May, Baird concluded that attorneys Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut conspired to orchestrate the drunken-driving arrest of lawyer C. Philip Campbell in 2013 to gain an advantage in a multimillion-dollar defamation suit. The lawsuit pitted their client, radio jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, against his radio rival, Todd "MJ" Schnitt, whom Campbell represented.

Baird's ruling affirmed the findings by the special prosecutor in the case, Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe. He found that a paralegal for Adams & Diaco recognized Campbell in a downtown Tampa bar, lied about where she worked and drank and flirted with him — all while texting her bosses. Filthaut reported the events to a "close, personal friend" who headed the Tampa police drunken-driving squad, who in turn organized a stakeout and pulled Campbell over as he moved the paralegal's car.

Despite the Bar's reluctance to try the case and even after its halting performance in court, Baird pressed admirably to hold the lawyers accountable and to force the Bar to follow through with its responsibility to self-police the profession. He rejected a lenient plea deal the Bar offered the three lawyers in March, which called for Diaco to be temporarily disbarred with the opportunity to reapply for his law license after five years and the two others to be barred from practicing law for just 91 days. Last month, Baird 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 jury trial. Their acts, the judge found, were meant to "unfairly influence" the administration of justice.

That should be a cardinal sin for an officer of the court. While the three lawyers have asked for leniency, citing their civic deeds, personal hardships and other factors that don't matter, there should be nothing more disqualifying for a lawyer than to have manipulated the legal system. And all three deserve the same punishment, having all played a key role in the scandal from the time Campbell was first spotted in the bar. The judge also found the three tried to cover up or destroy evidence. This was hardly a momentary lapse in judgment and ethics.

Five months after its lenient plea deal was rejected, the Bar now calls for Diaco to be permanently disbarred, while urging that Adams and Filthaut be temporarily disbarred with the opportunity to reapply for their law licenses in five years. But nothing indicates that there was any mitigating conduct on the part of Adams and Filthaut when it mattered that justifies softer punishment. Either this was a conspiracy or it wasn't. Baird, who will recommend sanctions to the Florida Supreme Court, should underscore that honesty is the bedrock to public faith in the judicial process.