Dispute nips at prosecutor's heels

Pam Bondi just wants to live happily with her adopted dog. Instead, it seems as though everyone is interested in her predicament.

Published July 4, 2006

TAMPA - Pam Bondi usually does the talking.

Whether she's chatting on MSNBC about teachers who sleep with students or holding off reporters who want the boot camp investigation scoop, the Hillsborough County prosecutor presents an image that is confident, smart and likable. She's the kind of gal you would love to shop with.

But when the TV cameras searched out Bondi last week, it was because people were talking about her and the dogfight she's in.

Dozens of e-mails and phone calls flooded her office, many from strangers who said Bondi was justified in keeping the St. Bernard that she adopted after Hurricane Katrina even though its original owners want it back.

Bondi said her secretary screened only a couple of "hate calls," fewer than she expected.

"It's just painful every time I see the word 'prosecutor' after my name when it's something to do personally with my dog," said Bondi, 40, who regrets that the dog dispute has brought attention to her office. "It just hurts."

And yet she refuses to give in. Whether they agree, colleagues say this is classic Bondi doing what she thinks is best for the victim.

"She's not going to do something simply because it's the popular thing; she's going to do it because it's the right thing," said Lyann Goudie, a Tampa lawyer and dog lover who supports Bondi's decision. "It goes hand in hand with how she is as a prosecutor."

Bondi preached that message as recently as June 24, when she appeared as a legal analyst on NBC's Dateline to discuss why a district attorney is pursuing rape charges against Duke lacrosse players.

"I believe Mr. Nifong firmly believes this victim," Bondi told NBC. "He believes her credibility."

Since joining the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office in 1991, Bondi has constantly made judgment calls about what is right and what is wrong and sorted through the gray in between.

She is one of the most visible prosecutors in the office, mostly because of her roles as spokeswoman for State Attorney Mark Ober and talking head on national TV shows. She once turned down an offer from ABC to play a prosecutor on a true-crime show.

She typically handles one murder case a year, plus other smaller fare. She told jurors why they should convict Valessa Robinson of killing her mother, and she helped put away for life the man who killed WFLA-Ch. 8 news director Danielle Cipriani. She prosecuted baseball disappointment Dwight Gooden for drug use, and this spring, she kept tabs on the man accused of stalking American Idol contestant Jessica Sierra.

"She's a complete prosecutor," Ober said. "She's aggressive when she needs to be. ... She's resilient. You have to be able to take a shot and move on, and she can do that."

Ober said it was an easy decision to keep Bondi on as the office's spokeswoman, a job she began under the late Harry Lee Coe. She was loyal and articulate, intelligent and eager to take on new tasks.

A prosecutor's career wasn't the life that the Hillsborough born and bred woman envisioned for herself. Then, through her church, Bondi, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a former mayor of Temple Terrace, met the state attorney at the time, Bill James.

At James' urging, she took an internship in his office. She did four jury trials while a student at Stetson University College of Law.

"And I never wanted to do anything else," she said.

She has earned the respect and friendship of community leaders and fellow lawyers, including those who have faced off against her in court. Defense lawyer Barry Cohen, a neighbor in South Tampa, likes her even though he has spotted Bondi's dog pooping in his yard.

"She's what I call a neat lady," he said. During the Jennifer Porter case, "she was on TV calling for jail time, yet we would see each other in the neighborhood and I would give her a hug."

Bondi has had to cope with unwanted attention before.

Two years ago, an alternate juror in a murder case was dismissed for fawning over the prosecutor's shapely legs and then sharing his observations with other jurors in a not-so-polite way. Bondi switched to pantsuits for the rest of the trial.

But the doggy duel is almost more than she can take.

It reached new heights last week when a New Orleans couple traveled with their two young grandchildren to Largo to make a plea for the return of their pets, Master Tank the St. Bernard and Nila the shepherd mix.

Bondi and a couple fostered, then adopted the dogs according to the Humane Society of Pinellas' rules. Bondi renamed her dog Noah.

She brought Noah home in September, only days after losing her beloved St. Bernard, Donovan, to cancer. Donovan was widely known at the prosecutor's office, sometimes accompanying Bondi to calm victims' nerves.

Bondi is blunt about her quick devotion to Noah. She said the dog suffers from heart worms and neglect that predate the hurricane. He needs medical care that she doesn't think the previous owners, Steven and Dorreen Couture, can provide.

Bondi thought she would get away from the brouhaha when she traveled to the Panhandle late last week to work on the boot camp investigation being handled by Ober's office.

But the story of Noah was making headlines in Panama City and got a mention on Howard Stern's satellite radio show Thursday night. Bondi dreaded the thought of Stern's spin.

"It's like adopting a child," she said. "Morally, ethically, legally, it's not even a close call to me. I'm saving his life and protecting him."

Emotionally distraught, she started crying when a reporter asked innocuous personal background questions. She said she was sensitive to a fault.

Bondi won't discuss how much she has spent on Noah, who gets fresh chicken and beef with every meal.

She can't believe the talk that the dog has generated. National media called all week wanting the story. When she walked Noah around her neighborhood, people stopped to ask if it was the dog on TV.

She has lost sleep. She has prayed. She has rechecked her motives and decided that she's right.

On Friday, her cell phone rang off the hook with calls from New York. Not again, she thought, and let the calls go to voicemail.

The messages brought good news. TV producers wanted her on their shows, but this time to talk about murder suspect John Couey.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or 813 226-3337.


Should Pam Bondi or the Coutures, the dog's previous owners, keep the St. Bernard? Take our online poll at http:// links.tampabay .com.