TAMPA (FOX 13) - What happened three years ago in Judge James Arnold's courtroom is still hard to believe. Now retired, after 30 years on the bench, Judge Arnold is looking back on the now-infamous DUI setup that got three Tampa lawyers permanently disbarred.
"I've never seen anything like this. John Grisham would have written this in a book. Nobody would have believed it," Judge Arnold said of the case. "Totally egregious, totally egregious."
Back in 2013, Radio shock-jock Bubba the Love Sponge was locked in a legal fight with rival radio star Todd "MJ" Schnitt. Right in the middle of the contentious defamation trial, MJ's attorney, Phil Campbell was arrested for DUI.
"That's when I was told the Tampa Police Department put out a statement that they supported their officer 100-percent, which I thought was a little strange," explained Judge Arnold.
All the attorneys in the case agreed to delay the trial for a day. Judge Arnold remembers what one of the now-disbarred attorneys, Stephen Diaco did next.
"He was criticizing me for continuing the trial and that bothered me, and the next morning [I] came into court. I called his brother up to the bench and I told him I had a bone to pick with his brother," said Arnold.
That's when the secret plot started to unravel. Some of Bubba's legal team - Stephen Diaco, Robert Adams and Adam Filthaut - were being accused of setting Campbell up for a DUI arrest. They used their legal assistant, Melissa Personius to have drinks with Campbell at Malio's and had a Tampa police officer, Ray Fernandez waiting in the wings to arrest him.
Despite the fact Campbell was walking home that night, Personius insisted her car needed to be moved. Campbell, seeing how intoxicated Personius was, got behind the wheel of her car. Shortly after that, Campbell was arrested.
Judge Arnold ordered a special hearing to get to the bottom of it.
"I asked the attorneys where Mr. Diaco was, where the paralegal was, where Mr. Adams and Mr. Filthaut were. They said, 'well, they're not here. They're not available,'" Judge Arnold recalled, demanding the attorneys make them available that afternoon.
Stephen Diaco was asked to bring his cell phone, but on the stand he said he forgot to bring it. Judge Arnold didn't buy it then and doesn't buy it now.
"I found that disturbing in light of the fact that, at the beginning of the trial, I saw this gentleman, who kept walking in and out, putting his cell phone up and putting it away. [Diaco] always had his cell phone," explained Judge Arnold.
It turns out there was a flurry of text messages between the attorneys, Personius, and Sergeant Fernandez that night and they were all erased. Most of those involved took the 5th.
Judge Arnold said he knew he had to act.
"On a civil matter, on motion for a mistrial, you don't take the 5th," he said.
When asked what he took away from that, Judge Arnold said, "my suspicions were aroused. I notified the Florida Bar. I said we got a problem."
Tomorrow Part 2 of Judge Arnolds interview on the setup and the aftermath, including his thoughts on The Bar trial against the three attorneys and his tesimony on the stand.