TAMPA — One of three lawyers suspended for orchestrating the DUI arrest of an opposing attorney during a high-profile defamation lawsuit between two popular radio personalities has been permanently disbarred.
On Jan. 28, Stephen Diaco, one of the attorneys who represented radio personality "Bubba the Love Sponge Clem" against a civil lawsuit filed by Todd “MJ” Schnitt, was permanently disbarred by the Florida Supreme Court for his role in setting up Attorney Phil Campbell for a DUI arrest.
Two other lawyers, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut of the Adams & Diaco law firm, were suspended along with Diaco in January, but the court has yet to decide their fate. The suspension was to take effect 30 days after the court’s Jan. 15 order, giving the lawyers time to close out their practice and protect the interests of existing clients.
Diaco’s disbarment comes before the suspension kicked in.
"Stephen Diaco is now finished as a lawyer, and deservedly so, for his role in the scandal involving the setup arrest of Phil Campbell," Campbell’s attorney, John Fitzgibbons, told the Florida Record.
Fitzgibbons said he would not be commenting further on the matter.
This marks another development in the highly publicized Tampa trial that stemmed from a longstanding legal dispute between radio rivals Clem and Schnitt. Schnitt hired Campbell to represent him in his 2008 defamation lawsuit against Clem. Clem, in turn, hired Diaco, Adams and Filthaut.
During the 2013 trial, a paralegal working for Adams & Diaco allegedly was instructed by her bosses to approach Campbell while he was having drinks after work at Malio’s, a bar and steakhouse in downtown Tampa. Campbell had walked to the restaurant and planned to walk home after dinner, court documents reveal. The paralegal allegedly lied to Campbell about where she worked while acting friendly toward him, convincing him to drive her car and informing her bosses of Campbell’s whereabouts.
The Adams & Diaco lawyers allegedly arranged for a Tampa police officer to be waiting outside as Campbell pulled out of the parking lot just before 10 p.m. According to reports, an officer waited for Campbell in the parking lot for three hours, then pulled him over and subsequently arrested him for DUI.
Accusations of a setup were made shortly after Campbell’s arrest, when he realized he had left his legal briefs in the paralegal’s car and discovered who she really worked for, according to records. And despite an alleged attempt to delete the text messages exchanged between the Adams & Diaco lawyers and the paralegal that night, records showed that they were in constant communication during the time period.
The Pinellas County State Attorney concluded its investigation into Campbell’s arrest in July 2013 and determined that, based on the circumstances surrounding Campbell's arrest, prosecutors “would be unable to sustain a successful prosecution,” and as a result, the DUI charge was dropped.
At the beginning of an administrative trial in August 2013, Diaco volunteered to lose his license with the ability to reapply for it in five years. But the court denied his petition.
Following the trial, Pinellas-Pasco Senior Judge W. Douglas Baird found the lawyers guilty of numerous ethical violations, and wrote that the actions of the Adams & Diaco lawyers had harmed not only Campbell, but the legal profession and the public’s perception of the judicial system, and recommended that the lawyers be disbarred.
“This malicious tampering with another person’s personal life and career was not only unprofessional, it was inexcusable,” Baird wrote.
Baird also found that the lawyers had attempted to have Campbell arrested previously — before the trial began — and that Filthaut leveraged his close ties with Tampa Police Sergeant Raymond Fernandez, former commander of the city's DUI squad, to set up Campbell. Fernandez was later fired by the Tampa Police Department as a result of his role in the arrest.
Diaco has been ordered to pay more than $14,000 to the Florida Bar for the cost of its investigation. Diaco had practiced law for over 20 years.