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Business Observer Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 19 years ago

Formidable Foe, Invaluable Ally (Tampa Edition)

Lawyer Barry Cohen took on the federal government in the 'Baby Sabrina' case and won $2.9 million in legal fees.

Legal Eagles

Sharks. Shysters. Bottom-feeders. Snakes. Sleaze. Call them what you want, but every business person needs at least one he can trust. Of course, we're talking about lawyers.In truth, a few unethical lawyers out there have tainted the reputation of the bunch. Most lawyers are dedicated to representing their clients' interests with integrity and fairness, and many are equally dedicated to contributing to the betterment of their community. The Gulf Coast attorneys profiled in this special report exemplify that dedication.

Formidable Foe, Invaluable Ally (Tampa Edition)

Lawyer Barry Cohen took on the federal government in the 'Baby Sabrina' case and won $2.9 million in legal fees.

By Hali White

Legal Affairs Editor

His staff calls him Mr. Cohen.

His wife calls him a wolf.

Wealthy Gulf Coasters, including lawyers and judges, who face legal problems - they just call him.

Barry Cohen of Cohen, Jayson & Foster PA is the lawyer on speed dial for many with the wealth and incentive to hire a top gun.

Dennis Alvarez, former Hillsborough County chief judge and now a partner in the Tampa law firm of Barr, Murman, Tonelli, Slother & Sleet, called Cohen after the FBI questioned his judicial involvement in the estate of Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse. Investigators wanted to know if Alvarez accepted gifts or money to influence his decisions.

The investigation fizzled, Alvarez says, after he called Cohen.

"I got tired of the innuendos and so forth," Alvarez says. "I wanted to put an end to it. I said, 'We're going to be aggressive.' I needed someone to take the bull by the horns."

Enter Cohen, who was quoted in newspapers as saying he would "deal with" the FBI if the Alvarez investigation weren't handled properly.

"When you go to Barry Cohen, they know you're serious," Alvarez says. "Barry makes things move real, real quick. He wants to get in, do a thorough investigation and present it and let the other side make their move. He's a very aggressive lawyer."

Says Cohen: "Most people know that if they come here and we assume responsibility for their case, I'll treat it as my own family. If that means coming in on Sundays or nights or early in the morning, we do what we have to do to protect the clients' interests."

His only boundaries are the law and the Florida Bar's code of ethics, he says. Everything else is open season.

On his office wall in a sea of framed newspaper articles hangs an example of that philosophy. A full-page advertisement accuses then-U.S. Attorney Bob Merkle, now deceased, of McCarthyism. The ad ran in the midst of Merkle's three-year investigation of E.J. Salcines, then the Hillsborough State attorney and now a judge with the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

"I made the decision in that case to fight (Merkle) very aggressively and taking out that full-page ad was my idea," Cohen says. "We don't go outside the parameters of the law but there's plenty of space between the ethics and the law to be creative and to be tenacious."

Steven Yerrid, the Tampa attorney whose own courtroom victories include a share in Florida's $13.6 billion verdict against the tobacco industry, is counting on the Cohen offensive defense to save his son, Gable Yerrid. The younger Yerrid was involved in a car accident in which the other driver, a 33-year-old wife and mother, was killed. The civil lawsuit settled out of court earlier this month, although criminal charges may still be filed.

It doesn't matter if a case falls in the criminal or civil arena. Cohen is comfortable in both. And he doesn't seem to mind if the media follows him in either.

He made national headlines in the "Baby Sabrina" case after a 5-month-old Valrico infant disappeared from the family home in 1997. Parents Steve and Marlene Aisenberg were indicted by the U.S. Attorney's office on charges of conspiracy and making false statements. Cohen took their case - and went head to head with federal prosecutors. He made appearances on national television shows, including "Larry King Live," "NBC Dateline," "The Today Show," "Geraldo," "20/20," "The Early Show" on CBS, and "Oprah Winfrey."

Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday ordered the government to pay Cohen $2.9 million in legal fees, and called into question the government's evidence, which included taped conversations taken from bugs placed in the Aisenberg's home by Hillsborough sheriff's deputies. And last month, Cohen filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Aisenbergs against the sheriff's office and 20 people, including prosecutors Rachelle DesVaux Bedke and Stephen Kunz. The lawsuit, which seeks minimal damages of $15,000, alleges malicious prosecution violated the Aisenbergs' civil rights.

At 54, Cohen has the energy and unlined appearance of a younger man. (He confesses to occasionally lying about his age). During a recent day at the office, Cohen sported a black pinstriped suit with a silver tie and cuff links. The normally casual Cohen explained the attention-getting suit was recommended by a salesman. The first time he wore it on TV, he says, an out-of-state colleague sent a note: "Loved your comments. The suit sucks." While not overly self-deprecating as a rule, Cohen enjoyed the laugh at his expense. He forwarded the note to the salesman, who responded by hanging it (the note, not the suit) in his own office.

His office, where people say, "Yes, Mr. Cohen. Of course, Mr. Cohen," is one of the most technologically advanced in the Tampa Bay area, says Cohen. The copious notes taken in each case - "the winning is in the details," he says - are filed electronically in a system that allows cross-referenced searches by key word.

"We go to any lengths we can," Cohen says. "When someone goes out to interview someone, they go out with every document, every cross reference."

Alvarez remembers the thoroughness from his own interview with Cohen: "No matter what you mentioned, he wrote it down. You drive a car? What kind? Where did you buy it? When he walks into that courtroom, he knows everything plus more about that case."

Cohen insists he is not a devil to work for; merely possessed of high expectations.

"There's not short cuts, no half-ass way of doing things," he says. "If you're not going to do it the way it should be done, there's no room for you here. There are a lot of lawyers who tolerate mediocrity. I don't tolerate mediocrity."

Asked to name the last time he was upset with someone on his payroll, he pauses before mentioning a paralegal who forgot to include the required to-do list at the end of interview notes. Even then, he insists he was not actually angry.

He is more easily irritated by people who misrepresent their talents, he says.

"That's probably what upsets me more than anything," he says. "When people said they could do things they couldn't. If a secretary came in here and told me she could take shorthand and tried to bluff her way through and substitute her words for mine, and said she could type but couldn't spell or type.

A typical workday starts at the gym before the sun rises. He's at the office by 7 a.m. and might not be home until 9 p.m. Saturdays count as workdays during trials. To de-stress, he spends time with his 2-year old son, and wife, Casasa. Mrs. Cohen, who has a doctorate in psychology, is the one responsible for the wolf in her husband's office. He tells of their visit to the taxidermist.

"She said, 'The (alpha) wolf will make the beta wolf succumb but will not kill the beta wolf unless it's absolutely necessary. I see you like that. You will not kill your adversaries but you will make them succumb - unless it's absolutely necessary to destroy them.' I said, 'That's probably true.' "

Cohen bought the wolf.

It now stands at permanent attention in his office, along with a Lady Justice statue and portraits of Casasa and the youngest Cohen. When he talks about his young wife - she is nowhere near 54 - Cohen shows a softening that his courtroom adversaries have probably never seen. He laughs at their recent observance of Yom Kippur. The Cohens were on their way to synagogue when they realized their son was not a happy camper. Cohen suggested a drive to settle the toddler down. They ended up driving all the way to Orlando, where their son got a second wind so they spent the day at Sea World.

"We should have been in synagogue but we made a spiritual day of it, had a great family day and laughed all the way back."

To unwind at the office, the staunch Democrat takes mini-breaks to mock the president. His desk features a George Bush doll that utters presidential malapropisms at the touch of a button - "If we don't succeed we run the risk of failure," and "I know how hard it is to put food on your family." Dubyah helps lighten the mood at tense meetings, says Cohen, who plans to actively support Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry for president.

Cohen has no plans to retire - ever - from the profession that has intrigued him since high school when he would skip school to watch trials. He says he could never be one of those men who golf all day and drink martinis at night in exclusive clubs. He'd be bored to death. Besides, he says, only half joking, no club would have him.

"When you step on as many toes as I do, you can't get in these clubs so easily," he says.

Not that he cares. Affability has never been his preferred approach. He prefers to win cases on law and chutzpah, leaving the schmoozing to the less skilled.

"I don't have a personal relationship with too many prosecutors," he says. "I like some of them but I don't make it a point to ingratiate myself with them so I can get favors from them. There are many lawyers who practice like that. I don't go out of my way."

His clients are willing to pay him well to do it his way. He won't discuss numbers, other than to say he does not charge an hourly rate. He had to name one in the Aisenberg case for accounting purposes, but says he normally values a case up front based on its potential financial gain, how long it will take, how many people from his office will be needed, and what it will cost him personally in terms of emotional energy and time away from his family.

"I've charged people from $10 million to nothing and everything in between," he says.

When he was younger, he says, he didn't understand the business of law. He employed a certified public accountant for years before he even really met the man. He made money and spent money. End of story. Now, with a staff of about 60, including 17 lawyers, Cohen is more conscious of the business aspect, though he still relies heavily on instinct when choosing clients.

Over the years, Cohen's client roster has included many fellow attorneys: Justice of the Peace Marion Hendry, accused in a hit and run incident; California attorney Donald Segretti on federal charges involving Florida's 1972 presidential primary; Tampa attorney Sheldon Louis Wind, accused of collecting campaign contributions improperly; State Attorney E.J. Salcines; Tampa Judge Arden Mays Merckle accused of depriving a man of his civil rights by sending him to jail for three days without bail; Tampa Judge Don Kilgore, accused of beating his girlfriend; Tampa attorney Abel Rigau, accused of kidnapping his girlfriend at gunpoint; Alvarez and Hillsborough Judge Bob Mitcham, accused of financial wrongdoing.

So why do they call the tousle-haired man with the extravagant suit?

Says Cohen: "Attorneys are in the best position to know who other lawyers are that love the law, who don't see it as a business, who see it as a passion."

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