Describing the misconduct as "essentially unprecedented," the Florida Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that two attorneys should be permanently disbarred for their roles in setting up the drunken-driving arrest of an opposing lawyer during a high-profile case.
Justices unanimously supported the disbarment of Robert D. Adams and Adam Robert Filthaut, who were with the Tampa firm Adams & Diaco, P.A. in January 2013 when the bizarre series of events occurred.
At that time, Adams & Diaco was defending radio personality Bubba the Love Sponge Clem in a defamation lawsuit filed by another radio personality, Todd Schnitt. Adams, Filthaut and a third member of the firm, Stephen Christopher Diaco, took part in a scheme to set up a DUI arrest of one of Schnitt's lawyers, Phillip Campbell, according to the Supreme Court.
"The misconduct giving rise to the disciplinary actions against these three attorneys is among the most shocking, unethical, and unprofessional as has ever been brought before this (Supreme) Court," the 13-page ruling said.
Diaco agreed earlier to disbarment, according to the ruling.
The set-up took place on Jan. 23, 2013, as the civil lawsuit involving the radio personalities was in recess for the night. Campbell and his co-counsel in the case had walked to Malio's Steakhouse in Tampa for dinner and drinks and were spotted by a paralegal who worked for Adams & Diaco.
The paralegal, Melissa Personius, contacted Adams about Campbell being in the restaurant and ultimately had drinks with Campbell at the bar without telling him that she worked for Adams & Diaco, the Supreme Court ruling said. Filthaut, meanwhile, called a friend, then-Tampa police Sgt. Raymond Fernandez and told him Campbell was drinking at Malio's and might drive while intoxicated.
Later in the evening, with Campbell planning to walk to his home a few blocks away, he offered to call a cab for Personius. Personius refused to leave her car overnight in valet parking and insisted it be moved to a secure parking lot, the ruling said. Campbell agreed to move the car to a lot near his apartment building and was pulled over by Fernandez and subsequently charged with DUI. Also, Campbell's bag containing trial information was left in Personius' car.
"The next day, Stephen Diaco made several statements to the media about the DUI of his opposing counsel Campbell, how the arrest caused the trial to be continued, and how Campbell's behavior was a mockery of the judicial system and an embarrassment to Diaco as an attorney," the ruling said.
The Florida Bar filed complaints in 2014 against Adams, Filthaut and Diaco, and a referee recommended permanent disbarment, according to court documents.
The Supreme Court ruling said Adams and Filthaut had "relatively lengthy unblemished careers" and presented multiple character witnesses. But justices concluded that the pair should be permanently disbarred, effective immediately, and said "the misconduct in this case is unique and essentially unprecedented, at least as documented in this court's prior case law."
"The respondents' actions constituted a deliberate and malicious effort to place a heavy finger on the scales of justice for the sole benefit of themselves and their client," the ruling said. "The personal and professional harm inflicted upon Campbell (a fellow attorney) and his clients' case, upon Sergeant Fernandez (a personal friend of Filthaut and officer of the law), and upon the legal system, the legal profession, and the public's confidence in both, was simply collateral damage from the respondents' point of view. The respondents' willingness to inflict and indifference to causing such harm is, in the words of the referee, quite 'stunning.' "
Days after the arrest, a jury in the radio personalities' case ruled in favor of Clem. The referee's report said Schnitt moved for a new trial, but a settlement was reached before an evidentiary hearing could be held on the alleged misconduct by Clem's attorneys.