The Tampa paralegal zeroed in on her target, a much older man on his third Grey Goose. It was happy hour at Malio’s steakhouse, and witnesses say she leaned in and batted her eyes at the respected senior attorney, who was oblivious to the impending honey trap. In two hours, he would be arrested.
“You must have some pull here,” Melissa Personius, 30, reportedly said that January 2013 evening after she couldn’t grab the bartender’s attention.
C. Philip Campbell, 64, had just finished a long day. He was working on a multimillion-dollar shock jock defamation trial, pitting his client Todd Schnitt against rival DJ Bubba ‘The Love Sponge’ Clem, who had called Schnitt’s wife a “whore” on air. Campbell couldn’t have suspected the woman next to him worked for the opposing team. Or that he would soon be in a legal spectacle as convoluted as his client’s.
After a few rounds, the unlikely pair left the swanky bar at about 9:45 p.m. Personius allegedly pleaded for Campbell to move her car. The barrister testified that he tried convincing her to leave it at Malio’s to no avail. He says he ran to an ATM for cash and tried to get her a cab and offered to bring her to his nearby condo to sober up. She supposedly refused.
Instead, Campbell says Personius was adamant he should be the one to drive her car to a nearby lot. He did not know a police officer—an alleged friend of the law firm—was apparently lying in wait. Campbell was pulled over two blocks later and charged with driving while intoxicated.
Those charges were dropped months later, but a trio of lawyers, Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams, and Adam Filthaut, are in the hot seat in its wake. They’re on trial this week in a case begging for the Hollywood treatment.
The Florida Bar is accusing the attorneys of masterminding a plot to get Campbell thrown off the Schnitt case.
Personius’s ex-husband testified against her. He claimed he has a video of her in a panic and confessing to the alleged subterfuge when she came home on that fateful night. (Personius is not being charged with anything at present.)
The FBI is investigating, and a criminal indictment may be forthcoming.
Campbell says he only discovered Personius worked for the firm Adams & Diaco because he left his briefcase—filled with private notes and exhibits—in her car. The night of the setup, Campbell says Personius told him she was a paralegal with Trenam Kemker, another law firm. The next day, Campbell says a colleague went to look for the briefcase at that firm and was informed the paralegal didn’t work there. Campbell says Personius returned the briefcase to his office the next day and Campbell’s firm learned of her true identity.
Before Campbell’s arrest, Adams & Diaco, tried repeatedly to have Campbell booted as Schnitt’s attorney, according to a 2013 report by state attorney Bernie McCabe, who cleared Campbell of DUI charges. The state investigation also claims Filthaut attempted once before to have the cop pull Campbell over.
Campbell wasn’t over the legal blood alcohol level of .08 percent when he was arrested, the state attorney’s office reported.
“The public relations mantra from A&D has been that they were only helping get a drunk driver off the streets,” assistant state attorney William Loughery wrote in the memo. “This rings hollow when you consider the time, effort and subterfuge used by them to get Campbell on the streets.”
Diaco, Filthaut, Personius and police officer Sgt. Ray Fernandez pleaded the fifth after every question posed in this week’s disciplinary trial. Adams, however, claimed he would “take responsibility for [his] lapse in judgment.”
“I’ve worked very hard to get where I am,” Adams said during court proceedings. “I’m not ready to let that go.”
In March, a judge denied a plea deal that would have seen Diaco disbarred and allowed Adams and Filthaut plead guilty to not adequately supervising a paralegal.
Tampa observers are steeling themselves for a wild ride, and local reporters are live-tweeting every detail of the trial. On Wednesday, one of Personius’s female colleagues, who says she was at the bar briefly that night, testified against her. Personius’s ex-husband took the stand the next day.
“She was instructed to basically set this guy up,” said former beau Kris Personius, who conceded he had an ax to grind over child support. “Get Phil Campbell to drink more and get Phil Campbell to stay until the cop was in place.”
Of his ex-wife’s bosses, Kris fumed: “I think they’re … to be honest ... scumbags.”
Scumbags or no, they could certainly be considered Tampa royalty. Stephen Diaco and his plastic surgeon brother, Dan, are personal friends of Bubba ‘The Love Sponge’ Clem, who on air declared Dan Diaco a master of breast enhancement. Patients and fans of Dan’s work call his boob jobs “Diacos.”
The Diacos, whose dad was the physician for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, especially got chummy with Clem after their lawyer brother, Joseph, represented the radio man in a high-profile animal cruelty case. In 2001, Clem castrated and slaughtered a wild boar live on air. He was found not guilty in the stunt despite evidence suggesting the abused pig’s teeth were broken before it was killed, the St. Petersburg Times reported.
Back then, Clem railed against the state attorney who brought the charges, saying, “When you take a shot at the king, you better kill him. And they didn’t kill me. I think they underestimated who they were screwing with.”
Clem was in the spotlight again in 2012 when Hulk Hogan filed a $100-million suit against him over a leaked sex tape showing the wrestling champ romping with Clem’s ex-wife, Heather. The Hulk claimed the footage was recorded without his consent. (Hogan eventually settled with Clem but the details of the agreement were undisclosed.)
It appears the Diacos were so inspired by Clem’s on-air escapades that they started their own weekly Internet radio program. Previous episodes have pondered, “What’s your sex fetish or pregnancy story?” and “Can you get a STD from a dead body?”
After Campbell’s arrest made news, Dan Diaco complained that his brother was being wrongly targeted. “I have a real disdain for those who drink and drive,” he said.
Their father, Dr. Joseph Diaco, told the Tampa Bay Times, “There's one thing about our family. We are ethical.”
The 2013 shock jock trial was two weeks in when Campbell was arrested. Schnitt lost his case, but agreed not to appeal in return for being absolved of $1 million in legal fees. The radio personality, who recently moved to New York, is demanding a refund from Campbell.
Still, the fallout from that suit rages on, as Diaco and fellow attorneys face disbarment in the Florida Bar trial.
Even as the Diacos foot paralegal Personius’s legal fees, they’re seemingly trying to throw her under the bus. “I should have asked her what she was doing,” her boss Adams claimed in court this week. “I didn’t.”
Filhaut’s legal eagle also chimed in: “Miss Personius simply went above and beyond what she was asked to do. What she was asked to do was to watch Mr. Campbell to see if he was drinking and if he was going to drive. That is it.”
The night of the alleged setup, Personius decamped the steakhouse and headed to another bar with her friend, Vanessa Fykes, who is now testifying against her. As she was leaving, Fykes says Personius saw Campbell at the bar and called Adams shortly after.
Personius recalled offering “to just go back [to the steakhouse] if they need anything,” according to state investigators. While she and Adams had 108 text messages and calls between them from 6:29 p.m. to 8:13 a.m. the next morning, Personius couldn’t recall the substance of the conversation.
For his part, Campbell told the court he had no second thoughts about grabbing drinks at Malio’s “other than the outcome.”
On Tuesday, the senior attorney said his own chivalry led him into the trap. “Why didn’t you just say, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t help you. I have a trial in the morning. I need to get home’?” defense attorney Greg Kehoe grilled.
“Because of my age I'm old-fashioned, was trying to do a lady a favor,” Campbell said.