TAMPA — Lawyers accused of setting up their opponent to be arrested for DUI are increasingly pointing their fingers at their paralegal, portraying her as out of control, drunk and doing more that night than they knew about or approved.
The trial over whether the Florida Supreme Court should sanction lawyers Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut was full of strategy and surprises on Monday.
The trial began Monday morning with an attempt by Diaco to end his involvement in the case by asking the high court to revoke his law license.
The first witness called to the stand, paralegal Melissa Personius, repeatedly invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as did Diaco, who was called as the Florida Bar’s second witness.
But then the trial was thrown into brief disarray when Adams was called and began answering questions. He had thought long and hard, he said, and decided to testify because he believed he otherwise would lose his license to practice law.
He said he also wanted to clear up misconceptions that have been reported about what happened the night of Jan. 23, 2013.
Bar attorney Jodi Anderson Thompson asked for a recess, saying Adams’ testimony was an “ambush” because he twice had refused to answer questions at depositions. So Judge William Douglas Baird, who is presiding over the hearing, called a recess to allow the bar to question Adams in a deposition.
Greg Kehoe, who is lead attorney for the three lawyers, has said they and others involved in what happened that night could not testify because they are in jeopardy from a pending FBI criminal investigation into the matter.
When Adams took the stand during the hearing Monday, he said the “worst decision in my life” was when he didn’t tell Personius not to go back to Malio’s, where she had seen lawyer C. Philip Campbell drinking.
At the time, Campbell was representing radio DJ Todd “MJ” Schnitt in a high-profile slander case against Bubba the Love Sponge Clem, who was being represented by Adams’ law partner and Diaco’s brother, Joseph Diaco Jr.
Personius saw Campbell drinking and called Adams. Adams said it was “shocking” that Campbell was drinking on a work night during a heavily covered trial at a time when his client was getting ready to testify.
Personius had left Malio’s when she called, and offered to go back. Adams said he didn’t instruct her to return but regrets not telling her to stay away from Campbell.
Adams said he told Stephen Diaco about Campbell drinking, and Diaco told him to tell Filthaut, which he did. He said he didn’t know Filthaut was going to tell his close friend, Raymond Fernandez, who was then in charge of the police department’s DUI unit.
“I didn’t tell Adam to do anything and I didn’t stop him, either,” Adams said. “That’s a big lapse in judgment on my part.”
Still, Adams said, he had no idea of everything that happened. “No rational person could conjure up what happened that night,” Adams said. He said he and other lawyers at the firm had no idea Personius would lie to Campbell about where she worked, drink with him at the bar and have him get in her car and drive.
“I should have asked her what she as doing,” Adams said. “I didn’t.”
Filthaut is scheduled to take the stand Monday morning. His lawyer, Mark O’Brien, said he didn’t know if Filthaut would testify.
In his opening statement, O’Brien, too, pinned a lot of blame on Personius.
“The logical reality is that Ms. Personius simply went above and beyond what she was asked to do,” O’Brien said. She was “asked to watch Mr. Campbell to see if he was drinking and was going to drive ... That is it.”
Personius, O’Brien said, “took it a step or even five steps further than any of these three gentlemen thought she as going to do. ..Ms. Personius hatched a plan that went well beyond the scope of what she was asked to do.”
The next day, Adams said, he put Personius on a paid leave of absence and required her to attend drug and alcohol rehab. That year, she was given a $10,000 bonus, Adams said, insisting it was standard for the firm to give employees generous bonuses. Others were given far greater bonuses, and Personius had received larger bonuses in previous years, he said.
Personius, he said, still works at the firm, which is paying her legal bills in this matter.
O’Brien also argued that Campbell “should be treated like the adult he is and not an adolescent.” Campbell, he said, should take responsibility for driving drunk that night.
Stephen Diaco, meanwhile, is trying to wash his hands of the matter, submitting a petition to the state Supreme Court asking that his license to practice law be revoked, with permission to reapply.
According to University of Miami law Professor Jan Jacobowitz, the court and the bar are not required to accept the petition.
“If it is accepted as pleaded, it accomplishes the termination of the case without trial testimony, etc., and permits reapplication,” she said. “There are various reasons that his counsel might recommend it, especially if they think that he will be have a better chance of readmission because of what the government in the criminal investigation may learn about the role he actually played in the entire affair. Alternatively, if he is prepared to relinquish his law license and has another career route to pursue, then it gets his name out of the case and somewhat out of the spotlight.”
Jacobowitz said the rules would require Diaco to wait at least five years to reapply for his license. And he would have to retake at least part of the bar exam at the time.
Diaco in March submitted a similar petition to the Supreme Court. But that petition was described as part of an all-or-nothing settlement that would have involved Filthaut and Adams having their licenses suspended for 91 days. Baird rejected the deal as being too lenient for the conduct alleged by the bar.
Diaco remained in court all day Monday after his latest petition was announced.