Schnitt asks for mistrial, says attorney's DUI a set-up
TAMPA - The courtroom battle of the radio bad boys has been eclipsed by the questionable behavior of the lawyers and their staff. On Friday, the radio jocks were sidelined in their defamation trial, while a lawyer and a paralegal hired their own attorneys and invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions about the events that led to the arrest of another lawyer involved in the trial. Walking out of court, shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem told reporters that the case had become "like a ‘South Park’ episode and I’m, quite frankly, getting a little tired of it." Police Chief Jane Castor issued a statement saying it was "unfortunate" that the department "has been dragged into this circus."The trial is set to enter its third week Monday over radio personality Todd "MJ" Schnitt’s lawsuit accusing Clem of making defamatory remarks about him and his wife, Michelle. The suit says Clem incited his listeners, known as "Bubba’s Army," to harass the Schnitts in a "radio war" that turned personal. But the bad behavior at the center of much of the court day Friday had nothing to do with that issue. The defamation trial first derailed after a lawyer for Schnitt was arrested Wednesday night on a DUI charge, causing the judge to recess the case on Thursday. On Friday, Schnitt’s legal team accused Clem’s side of a setup, and Judge James D. Arnold said he wasn’t sure what to do. Turns out the lawyer who was arrested, Charles Phillip Campbell Jr., had been drinking Wednesday at Malio’s Steakhouse with a woman he didn’t know was a legal assistant in the office of Adams and Diaco, a law firm representing Clem. Schnitt’s attorneys said the legal assistant, Melissa Personius, bought Campbell at least one drink and then asked Campbell to move her car. A lawyer in the Diaco firm, Adam Filthaut, alerted a friend in the Tampa Police Department that Campbell had been drinking at Malio’s and would be driving home, giving police a description of the car, police testified. Jonathan Ellis, who also represents Schnitt, said Campbell, who had a previous DUI, had gone to Malio’s because it was close enough to his home to walk. When he was arrested driving Personius’ car, he left his briefcase in the vehicle. The briefcase was returned late Thursday, after Schnitt’s lawyers realized what happened and called Clem’s lawyers. On Friday, Schnitt’s legal team cried foul. "It totally turns this trial upside down," said Ellis, who excoriated Clem and his lawyers for talking about Campbell’s arrest on the television news. Clem’s legal team insisted they had done nothing improper and that no one at the firm looked inside the briefcase. "I understand that the Schnitts may be upset because their attorney got a DUI," lawyer Joseph Diaco told the judge. "I understand that the Schnitts may be upset because it got publicity. … The sanctity of the jury has been protected. The integrity of the briefcase, there is no evidence that it has been disrupted. … They’ve implied what they think happened. There’s no evidence that anybody set anyone up." Earlier, Diaco’s brother, lawyer Stephen Diaco, appeared in court with two attorneys, one for civil matters and criminal lawyer Norman S. Cannella Sr., who advised the court Diaco would answer questions only about the briefcase. Cannella said he would advise Diaco to invoke his right to silence in other matters. Stephen Diaco did just that, refusing to answer some questions such as whether anyone from his office called Tampa Police the night of Campbell’s arrest. Later, asked if he had sent the paralegal to Malio’s that night to get Campbell drunk, Stephen Diaco said, "No." Diaco said he didn’t recall whether he spoke to Filthaut or Personius that night. But Diaco didn’t bring his cellphone to court, even though he was subpoenaed to do so. Another lawyer not involved in the case, Michael Trentalange, testified he was there that night with Campbell and Personius. Trentalange said the subject of the shock jock case was discussed, but Personius didn’t mention her job with the Diaco firm, and instead gave the names of other law firms she said she worked for. Personius testified she lied about her job because she is a single woman and didn’t want to give out personal information because of the potential of being stalked. Personius repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, including when asked a general question about what happened the night Campbell was arrested and when asked her cellphone number and the name of her cellphone carrier. She did answer questions about the briefcase, saying as soon as she realized it was in her car the next day, she called her boss at the law firm. Another lawyer came and retrieved it, and an hour later, returned with Stephen Diaco with instructions that she take the briefcase to Campbell’s law firm, she said. Schnitt’s attorneys initially asked Arnold to grant a mistrial and to remove Clem’s attorneys from the case. At the end of the hearing, lawyer Jaime Austrich asked the judge to take the mistrial motion under advisement, let the case go to the jury and give the Schnitt legal team time to obtain phone records to establish more precisely what happened that night. In the end, the judge reserved ruling, saying he needed do to some research and look at some records. "I think there’s some serious questions in this case about what occurred," Arnold said. "I think there are some unanswered questions."
The Daystarter: Here are Tampa Bay's biggest water users; Clearwater man in court in human trafficking deaths; email sheds light on sewage crisis; paralysis patients fear nursing home placement