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Rules of engagement: Florida Bar investigates Tampa lawyers

After a contentious day in court representing Todd “MJ” Schnitt in a defamation suit against rival shock jock Bubba “The Love Sponge” Clem, attorney Phillip Campbell walked to a swanky downtown Tampa steakhouse for dinner and drinks.

There, at the bar, the then- 64-year-old attorney met a 30-year-old woman named Melissa Personius who, according to witnesses, acted both “overtly friendly” and “overly flirtatious” toward him. They talked and drank. Personius even ordered Campbell a shot of Southern Comfort liquor. Eventually, Campbell excused himself, saying he had to get up early the next morning to prepare for the next day’s testimony. He lived nearby in a downtown apartment and planned to walk home.

However, Campbell expressed concern that Personius had consumed too much alcohol to drive and offered to call her a cab. She refused. He advised her again to leave her car at the steakhouse’s parking garage and take a cab. She refused several more times, telling him that she needed to have access to her car in a “secured public parking lot,” according to a Florida Bar report. Eventually, Campbell agreed to drive her car himself to a different parking lot from where, presumably, she would have taken a cab home.

He put his briefcase in the back seat of her silver Nissan and sat behind the wheel. She sat in the passenger seat. Three blocks from the steakhouse, after police observed him violate the right of way of another car, Campbell was stopped and arrested for DUI.

When Campbell, who had a previous DUI arrest on his record, turned the Nissan’s ignition key that January 2013 night, here’s what he didn’t know: 

That Personius was a paralegal working for Adams & Diaco, the law firm representing Clem in the defamation case. She had told Campbell at the bar that she worked for a different firm.

That Personius, often while sitting with him at the bar, exchanged text messages with Robert D. Adams, Stephen C. Diaco and Adam R. Filthaut, attorneys at her firm, and that Filthaut was a close friend of Sgt. Raymond Fernandez, head of the Tampa Police Department’s traffic enforcement and DUI unit.

That among the more than 200 text messages and cell phone calls exchanged that evening between Personius, the attorneys and others was a warning from Filthaut to Sgt. Fernandez that Campbell was drinking and would likely drive drunk that night. That information set into motion a DUI stakeout, with Campbell as the target.

After a one-day delay, with Schnitt’s side requesting a mistrial, the trial resumed, ending in a favorable verdict for Clem. Amid threats that Schnitt would ask for a new trial, the two sides reached a settlement. Schnitt agreed to drop his appeal, and Clem agreed not to ask Schnitt to pay his legal fees, which Clem says total $1 million. Clem also agreed to stop talking about Schnitt’s family — one of the reasons for the defamation suit in the first place.

The settlement brought closure to the dispute between Schnitt and Clem but has left plenty of additional turmoil in its wake.

Schnitt sued Campbell, a partner at Shumaker, Loop & Kendrick in Tampa, for legal malpractice. Schnitt also has refused to pay $1 million in legal fees and asked for a return of the $1 million in legal fees he already paid the firm.

Campbell’s DUI charge was dropped after the State Attorney’s Office determined that the arrest was orchestrated by Clem’s legal team. Also, the 13th Judicial Circuit Grievance Committee found no cause to discipline Campbell as a result of his arrest.

Fernandez, a 19-year police department veteran and head of the DUI unit, was fired, and at least 12 of the DUI cases he was involved in have been dropped. Fernandez filed a grievance to get his job back, but the claim was denied.

The Florida Bar has no jurisdiction to investigate Personius because she is not a “Florida Registered Paralegal,” says Francine Walker, the Bar’s director of public information. But the Bar has filed a complaint with the Florida Supreme Court against Adams, Diaco and Filthaut, contending that they broke Bar regulations when they set up Campbell. The attorneys and Personius deny the allegations.

A final hearing on the complaint is scheduled for next month. If the Supreme Court determines that the attorneys violated Bar rules, they’ll face a wide range of sanctions from admonishment to disbarment.