Legal hotshot takes on fight for the dogs

Barry Cohen, the powerful lawyer who kept Jennifer Porter out of prison, will help Pam Bondi battle for custody.

Published July 8, 2006

TAMPA - He's a big dog in the Tampa Bay legal community who's been known to keep a stuffed wolf in his office as a reminder of his ferocious style.

Barry Cohen, who began his career representing underdogs against the powerful, has jumped into a dogfight involving custody of a St. Bernard.

Cohen is representing Hillsborough County prosecutor Pam Bondi against a Louisiana family that lost its dogs after Hurricane Katrina and wants them back.

Dog adoption rules will now occupy the time of the lawyer who defended a New York mobster whose life inspired the movie Goodfellas and helped dance instructor Jennifer Porter avoid prison in a notorious hit-and-run.

Steven and Dorreen Couture of Talisheek, La., filed a lawsuit last week contending that the Humane Society of Pinellas negligently turned over Master Tank the St. Bernard to Bondi and Nila, a shepherd mix, to Rhonda Rineker of Dunedin, who won't return them.

The dogs were rescued from a makeshift shelter after Hurricane Katrina.

Bondi has said that she legally adopted the St. Bernard, which she renamed Noah.

She is a defendant in the suit, along with the Humane Society and Rineker.

Cohen declined to comment on the case, which cable news shows have featured. His office filed an emergency motion Friday asking a judge to postpone a hearing scheduled for Tuesday.

It's an interesting pairing because Cohen has taken on the Hillsborough County State Attorney's Office several times throughout the years. During the Porter case, he said Bondi's boss, State Attorney Mark Ober, had the "courage of a protozoan."

But Bondi is also Cohen's neighbor, someone he called a lovely person in an interview last week. During the Porter case, he said, he hugged Bondi when he saw her in the neighborhood just to let her know that their jobs weren't personal.

He said he has never faced Bondi in a trial.

"She's my friend," he said. "I would prefer her not to be my adversary."

Besides the Porter case, their bond has also withstood Noah's indiscretions. Cohen said the dog has defecated in his front yard.

Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or 813 226-3368.