CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) — Four lawyers. Two shock jocks. One flirtatious paralegal.
A Florida judge will soon decide if three well-known Tampa attorneys tricked a rival lawyer into getting a DUI in an attempt to derail opposing counsel on a defamation case.
The ethics trial began this week and it has riveted Tampa's legal community with its salacious details of scheming and flirtation, of prior drunk driving arrests and extramarital affairs.
On one side is the Florida Bar, which supports the version of events told by lawyer Phil Campbell. He was charged with DUI two years ago. The Bar alleges that attorneys Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut set Campbell up and used a paralegal and a Tampa police officer to help. They could be sanctioned or disbarred if found guilty.
This story begins in January 2013, when Diaco, Adams and Filthaut represented a radio host named Bubba The Love Sponge Clem in a defamation lawsuit brought by another rival radio host, Todd Schnitt, who claimed Clem had made derogatory remarks about him and his wife on the air and got his fans to harass and threaten them. Campbell represented Schnitt, who now has a national talk radio show. Clem once gained national attention and criticism for castrating a boar live on the air.
After the second day of the trial, Campbell went for drinks and dinner at Malio's, a well-known steakhouse in a round Tampa skyscraper known locally as "The Beer Can Building."
When he was about to leave, two women sat next to him. One, Melissa Personius, was a Diaco, Adams and Filthaut paralegal. She chatted up Campbell, lied about where she worked and flirted with him, according to witness testimony. He responded by bragging about his legal career, even showing her newspaper stories about the Clem-Schnitt trial.
Personius' friend testified she watched as Personius, then 32, bought Campbell, then 65, drinks and a shot of Southern Comfort. When he got up to leave, she followed. Personius told Campbell that she didn't want to leave her car in valet parking. Campbell, who planned to walk to his downtown apartment, said he would drive her car to the parking lot near his home. Moments after he got behind the wheel, Campbell was stopped by Tampa Police Sgt. Ray Fernandez and charged with driving under the influence.
The Florida Bar has accused Personius of taking orders from her bosses to "set up" Campbell.
Investigators later discovered that Fernandez was a family friend of attorney Filthaut's, and records later revealed that Adams, Diaco, Filthaut and Personius had been exchanging texts and phone calls that night. Fernandez and Filthaut also called each other that evening.
Campbell's DUI charge was dropped and Fernandez was fired after an internal investigation. Schnitt lost his lawsuit against Clem, and as part of a mediation agreement, Clem can't talk publicly about Schnitt's wife.
The ongoing ethics trial has been marked by tense cross-examination at times and, at other times, witty repartee and laughter. Most of the attorneys have known each other for years and have argued cases against each other.
By the fourth day of the trial, Melissa Personius' ex-husband took the witness stand. Kris Personius detailed how even though they were divorced, they were still living together when she came home the night of the DUI arrest. She told him that at the behest of her attorney bosses at the firm, she tricked Campbell into driving her car after he had a few drinks, he said.
"She was instructed to basically set this guy up," Kris Personius said, adding that he always thought the lawyers who she worked for were "scumbags."
During cross-examination, the attorney for the Diaco and Adams law firm questioned Kris Personius' credibility, detailing his domestic violence injunctions, his past DUI and the fact that he videotaped his ex-wife talking about the alleged setup of Campbell without her consent.
Kris Personius said his ex-wife started to tell him the story, but he initially stopped her.
"I went out and smoked, I came back inside and I taped it," he said.
He later played the video to Campbell — but only after he and his ex-wife had custody issues over their two children.
The trial is expected to last several more days. Judge W. Douglas Baird will issue a decision later.