Jeffrey Tew with Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez, PA, (J. Albert Diaz)
The complaints read like a John Grisham novel that needs editing.
Yet there are real consequences for the main characters in a wild tale of battling radio shock jocks, a tipsy paralegal and a DUI stakeout in downtown Tampa.
A referee has three Florida Bar complaints, kicking off a lengthy process that will end with the Florida Supreme Court accepting or revising the fact-finder’s recommendations.
Case Nos.: SC 14-1052, 1054, 1056
Date filed: June 2, 2014
Case type: Attorney discipline
Court: Florida Supreme Court
Referee: Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird, Pinellas Circuit Court
Lawyers for petitioner: Jodi Anderson Thompson, Bar counsel, The Florida Bar, Tampa; Adria E. Quintela, staff counsel, The Florida Bar, Sunrise
Lawyers for respondents: Gregory W. Kehoe, Greenberg Traurig, Tampa, and Elliot H. Scherker, Julissa Rodriguez and Stephanie L. Varela, Greenberg Traurig, Miami; Joseph Arnold Corsmeier, Joseph A. Corsmeier P.A., Clearwater
Already the court has labeled the consolidated cases “high profile,” so every addition is publicly accessible on a special website.
And already Greenberg Traurig, the heavyweight advocate for the three accused lawyers, is trying to seal part of the record. The firm wants to shield a motion to stay the Bar proceedings until a federal grand jury concludes its criminal investigation.
The amazingly detailed Bar complaints allege that Robert Adams and Stephen Diaco, partners in Adams & Diaco, and associate Adam Filthaut orchestrated the DUI arrest of Phillip Campbell, the opposing counsel in a defamation trial that was winding down.
The three lawyers are accused of framing Campbell with the help of a flirtatious Adams & Diaco paralegal and a Tampa police sergeant who was friends with Filthaut. Then, if the Bar complaint is correct, they covered up and destroyed evidence—even retained Campbell’s trial briefcase—while misleading the court and the public.
“Think about poor Mr. Campbell,” said Jeffrey Tew of Rennert Vogel Mandler & Rodriguez in Miami.
“If proven, there was a conspiracy to harm him and therefore his client and that’s the terrible part about it,” added Tew, who has represented lawyers in disciplinary matters for 20 years.
He notes that complaints are only lists of allegations.
“There’s been no evidence, nobody’s been cross-examined,” he said. “Even lawyers deserve the benefit of the doubt and the presumption of innocence.”
Wild Boar Suit
It’s hard to imagine a court action with a higher profile in Tampa Bay than Todd “MJ” Schnitt versus Bubba “the Love Sponge” Clem, two bad boys fighting for a bigger share of the morning talk radio market. Local TV stations and the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times) went to town and back on the story.
Schnitt claimed that Clem defamed him and his wife, a state prosecutor. Clem, who had been acquitted of animal cruelty charges for killing and barbecuing a wild boar on his show, blamed Schnitt’s wife, Michelle, for the unwanted attention.
According to Schnitt’s 2008 lawsuit, Clem crossed the line of fair competition when he accused Schnitt of rigging radio contests and other crimes and encouraged his listeners, “Bubba’s Army,” to physically attack the Schnitts.
On Jan. 23, 2013, a Hillsborough County jury was about to get the defamation case after more than two weeks of trial. What allegedly transpired next takes up more than 400 paragraphs in the 50-page complaints the Florida Bar filed against Diaco, Adams and Filthaut, whose firm represented Clem.
The complaints say:
After court recessed for the day, Campbell was at Malio’s, a restaurant near his office and home, when Adams & Diaco paralegal Melissa Personius spotted him at the bar. Introducing herself as “Melissa” from the Trenam Kemker firm, she flirted and drank with Campbell.
As the evening progressed, Personius stayed in constant contact with her bosses, keeping them apprised of Campbell’s activities, and with Filthaut.
Filthaut relayed the information from Personius to his friend Sgt. Raymond Fernandez, head of the Tampa police DUI unit. Meanwhile Fernandez supervised a stakeout near the restaurant.
Fernandez told Filthaut, “We didn’t get him last time … we’ll sit on him again.”
After a couple of hours Campbell wanted to walk home and prepare for trial the next day. He offered to pay for a cab to take the inebriated Melissa home, but she demurred, saying she had to move her car to a secure parking lot.
Finally he agreed to drive her home in her car. Within minutes Campbell was arrested for DUI, leaving his briefcase behind. The arrest report doesn’t say Fernandez was tipped to the DUI or that Personius was in the car.
Back in court the next morning, the parties agreed to give the jury the day off.
Diaco told Bay News 9: “I hope he [Campbell] gets help. My partners … were working hard on preparing this case last night. He doesn’t seem to be doing the same, and now we’re getting penalized for it.”
Schnitt’s lawyers soon learned about Personius’ involvement. They moved for a mistrial.
At a hearing the next morning, Diaco invoked the Fifth Amendment when asked about contact with the Tampa Police Department. He said he couldn’t recall if he’d spoken with Personius or Filthaut two days earlier.
Personius took the Fifth.
Judge James Arnold denied the motion for a mistrial, the case resumed and the jury returned a verdict in favor of defendant Clem, Adams & Diaco’s client.
The state attorney’s office dropped the DUI charge against Campbell.
Schnitt threatened to seek a retrial, but the case ended with a confidential settlement.
Schnitt fired Campbell, and he sued for his fees. Schnitt countersued for malpractice.
Fernandez was fired and is contesting his termination.
A lingering question is, since the Adams & Diaco lawyers said they deleted their text messages and voice mails, how did Bar counsel put together an encyclopedic account of their communications on the fateful night?
“I’d like to see the transcripts of the lawyers’ testimony before the Bar,” Tew said. “People tend to be forthcoming once they realize their livelihood is at stake.
“One sure way to be disbarred is to lie in testimony to the Bar.”