A salacious case involving multiple high-profile attorneys, a young paralegal, and the always unfortunate combination of drinking and driving has captured Florida headlines in recent months.
In January 2013, the firm of Adams & Diaco and attorney C. Phillip Campbell found themselves on opposite sides of a defamation trial. Tampa area DJs Todd "MJ" Schnitt, represented by Campbell, and Bubba "The Love Sponge" Clem, represented by Adams & Diaco, had been feuding for years. The dispute reportedly started around 2008, when Bubba Clem was accused of calling MJ's wife, Michelle Schnitt, a "whore,” among other things. Schnitt sued Clem for hurting his reputation. It was supposed to be a run-of-the-mill, standard defamation case.
Then the lawyers involved got caught up in a trial of their very own.
According to multiple sources, Campbell was sitting at Malio’s steakhouse after a day in court when a paralegal from Adams & Diaco, Melissa Personius, sat down beside him. Campbell, for his part, believed that she chose the seating on purpose. Personius says it was purely coincidental; Vanessa Fykes, who accompanied Personius to the bar, corroborates the paralegal’s account. She says the bar was packed, and the seat Personius selected was the only one available.
Either way, from there Campbell and Personius became engaged in conversation – culminating in the pair leaving the establishment at the same time. It has been suggested that Personius somehow convinced Campbell to drive; however, as can be seen in surveillance footage obtained from Malio’s, Personius initially moved to get into the driver’s seat herself, only to seemingly be redirected by Campbell to the passenger’s side.
Shortly after Campbell drove off, a Tampa DUI sergeant pulled them over. He determined that Campbell was driving under the influence and arrested him.
Here is where the story got interesting. Campbell alleged that everything, beginning with Personius sitting down next to him and ending with the DUI, was a setup. He accused the paralegal of working with her bosses at Adams & Diaco to ply him with alcohol – essentially making him a ready and waiting target for an officer who was looking to make a bust.
When Campbell’s charges went public, the story blew up. The idea of a young, attractive paralegal getting a competitor drunk and then setting him up for an arrest was too good to pass up.
Robert Adams, Stephen Diaco and Adam Filthaut, of Adams & Diaco, were accused of misconduct, unfairness to opposing counsel, and disrupting court. Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe's office dropped Campbell’s DUI charge and issued a report calling the paralegal "undercover," and regarding the arrest as a "collaboration" and "organized effort.”
For obvious reasons, the media ate all of this up.
Since then, though, a lot of information has emerged regarding what exactly happened that fateful night at Malio’s, and the facts are not even remotely as juicy as the initial allegations.
For one thing, a central part of the ‘setup’ narrative was that Personius exchanged texts with her bosses while she was sitting at the bar with Campbell. The Pinellas County State’s Attorney’s investigation, specifically, took this into account. However, a review of the phone records obtained from T-Mobile reveals that the investigation seemingly misinterpreted the records. Text records for Robert Adams maintained by T-Mobile were recorded in Pacific Standard Time (PST), but the Pinellas County State’s Attorney’s investigation reported Adams’ texts in Eastern Standard Time (EST). This was simply not accurate.
Moreover, receipts obtained from the bar indicate that Personius did not attempt to get Campbell drunk. According to Fykes, the shot of alcohol consumed by Campbell and purchased by Personius was, in fact, purchased for her, but she turned it down. Beyond that, Campbell reportedly consumed five vodka on the rocks (which is a shot and a half of vodka in each drink because there is no mixer added to the cocktail. This is shown as an upcharge on his receipts for each vodka drink he consumed) and one shot on his own.
When you take into account the text messages being erroneously reported on, Fykes’ account of what happened and the surveillance footage from Malio’s, it is a bit unclear why so many suggested this was a setup.
Greg Kehoe, the legal representation for Robert Adams and Stephen Diaco, has a theory.
“Theres a sizzle factor here that exists because it’s a small town and theres not much else going on,” he says. “It’s not really that interesting, and if there were a hard news event happening, this story would get no coverage.”
The story has been in the news since January of last year. Kehoe feels that journalists are taking advantage of the population’s natural curiosity.
“This is largely a media created event,” he says. “Several of the lawyers involved on the other side are friends with the journalists who are driving this story. That, coupled with the intrigue created by the sensationalism of the media, is giving this thing legs. Obviously, they think it will sell newspapers.”
Kehoe also states that the Florida Bar Grievance Committee agrees with him.
“The reality is that this was no setup, no matter how exciting that story may seem,” he says. "The opposing attorneys' claims do not line up, and this case has been plagued by inaccuracies. The fact is, Phil Campbell drove drunk under his own free will, and that’s nobody’s fault but his.”
Even given Kehoe’s affiliation with Stephen Diaco and Robert Adams, it is hard to dispute that the initial ‘sizzle factor’ did seemingly drive the attention this story initially received. As more and more evidence of what happened that night comes out, it is becoming increasingly clear that a lot of the original theories people had about the case were baseless.
"At the end of the day,” Kehoe said. “I'm confident there will be no finding any of those individuals did anything wrong at any time — absolutely confident.”