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By Samson Habte
Aug. 26 — Two Florida lawyers who orchestrated the DUI arrest of a courtroom adversary—through a scheme that involved a flirtacious paralegal and the assistance of a friend in the Tampa Police Department—were permanently disbarred Aug. 25 by the Florida Supreme Court ( Fla. Bar v. Adams, 2016 BL 277819, Fla., No. SC14-1056, 8/25/16 ).
The ruling brought an end to a trio of related discipline cases that engrossed the Florida legal community and drew the attention of federal prosecutors.
Voting unanimously, the court adopted a bar referee's recommendation to permanently disbar Robert D. Adams and Adam Filthaut for their roles in plotting the 2013 drunk driving arrest of an opposing lawyer in a pending, high-profile jury trial involving radio shock-jock “Bubba the Love Sponge” Clem.
A third lawyer implicated in the DUI scheme, Stephen C. Diaco, was permanently disbarred in January after deciding not to contest the referee's report. See 32 Law. Man. Prof. Conduct 73.
Adams and Filthaut did challenge the referee's findings, arguing that permanent disbarment would be unduly harsh and inconsistent with case law.
The justices were not swayed. In a per curiam opinion, they said the respondents' misconduct was “essentially unprecedented,” and cases cited in support of their pleas for leniency were thus inapposite.
The stranger-than-fiction events, which generated intense media coverage, were detailed in law enforcement reports that were summarized in the bar referee's 72-page report.
The report detailed an intricate plot to entrap C. Phillip Campbell, lead counsel for a radio personality who had sued Clem, a client of Diaco, Adams and Filthaut.
The report said Adams and Diaco instructed a paralegal to ply Campbell with drinks when she spotted him at a bar after the jury trial began—and to convince Campbell to drive her car so Filthaut could arrange for an awaiting friend in the police department to make a DUI arrest.
The disciplinary hearings were conducted without testimony from the three lawyers and the paralegal and police officer who purportedly helped them pull off Campbell's arrest. According to the referee, those individuals invoked their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination because of a parallel federal grand jury investigation into their actions.
The referee relied on statements the lawyers and their alleged accomplices gave to law enforcement investigators, and on statements from witnesses who were willing to testify in the disciplinary case.
One of those witnesses was the ex-husband of Melissa Personius, the paralegal who allegedly participated in the DUI scheme. According to the referee report, Personius's ex-husband testified that his wife:
admitted to him in an excited state that she had participated in setting up Mr. Campbell at the direction of her employers, specifically [Adams] and [Diaco]. She told him that the Respondents were looking to set Mr. Campbell up, that she had been directed to go to Malio's [Steakhouse] to spy on him and “get him to stay longer and drink more,” and [Diaco] and [Adams] were “going to Adam Filthaut, too, to get the cop in place.” Ms. Personius also said that she had made Mr. Campbell drive and told her ex-husband that she “got him” and “made him drive my car.” Mr. Personius further testified that [his ex-wife] stated that [Diaco] told her that she would receive a big bonus ….
The referee found that the lawyers violated Florida Rule of Professional Conduct 3.4(g) when they conspired “to improperly effect the arrest of [Campbell] and then attempted to cover up or otherwise destroy evidence of [their] participation in that conspiracy.” Rule 3.4(g) prohibits lawyers from participating in bringing criminal charges against a person solely to obtain an advantage in a civil matter.
The referee said all three lawyers also breached Rules 3.4(a) (unlawfully obstructing another party's access to evidence); 3.4(c) (conduct intended to disrupt a tribunal); 4.4(a) (actions in litigation that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person); 8.4(c) (conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation); and 8.4(d) (conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice).
The referee found that Diaco and Adams—who were partners in their firm—also contravened Rules 5.1(c) and 5.3(b), which deal with the supervisory duties of lawyers who hold management positions.
The court adopted those findings and the recommendation to permanently disbar Adams and Filthaut, saying, “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 Court.”
According to the opinion, the lawyers argued that sanction was inappropriate because it has typically been reserved for cases involving “patterns of continuing egregious and unrepentant misconduct demonstrating that [an] attorney is not amenable to rehabilitation and is beyond redemption.”
But the court said case law was an imperfect guide.
“[I]f the misconduct involved in this case is not comparable to that committed in the cases above, this is in part because the misconduct in this case is unique and essentially unprecedented, at least as documented in this Court's prior case law,” the justices said.
The court said it hoped the ruling would “serve to warn other attorneys of the high standards of professional conduct we demand,” and that it would “send a message to the public that this Court will not tolerate such outrageous misconduct” from Florida lawyers.
Adams was represented by Elliot Scherker and Gregory W. Kehoe of Greenberg Traurig LLP, Miami; and by William F. Jung of Jung and Sisco P.A., Tampa.
Mark J. O'Brien of O'Brien Hatfield P.A., Tampa, represented Filthaut.
Chief Branch Discipline Counsel Sheila M. Tuma, Bar Counsel Jodi A. Thompson and Bar Counsel Katrina Brown, Tampa, Fla., represented the bar.
To contact the reporter on this story: Samson Habte in Washington at email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Ethan Bowers at firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2016 American Bar Association and The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
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