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Former employee takes on prominent Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen

TAMPA — Prominent Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen is tangled in a legal battle with former employee and lawyer Natalie Khawam.

She's suing him, his law firm and other defendants on six counts, including sexual harassment and breach of contract.

But the claims are false, Cohen said, and her lawsuit boils down to greed.

Khawam asserts in her suit, filed Monday in Hillsborough County Circuit Court, that she was the victim of verbal sexual harassment from a financial officer doing work for the firm, Alan Goldberg.

Khawam left the firm as a result, but the firm refused to pay her a commission Cohen had promised her, according to the suit, and threatened to sue her clients if they left with her.

Shortly after the firm hired Goldberg as a consultant in fall 2009, Goldberg told Khawam "that if she really wanted her reimbursement monies immediately, he would tell her at what hotel he was currently staying," the suit says.

Khawam emailed Cohen about that and other complaints on Nov. 17, 2009, and "specifically indicated the behavior was unwanted, unprofessional and sexually harassing," says the suit, which also names Goldberg's firm.

"She left the firm not just because of the harassment from the CFO, but because of making specific requests to Barry Cohen do something about the problem and he refused to address it," said Wil Florin, Khawam's attorney. "Basically it was, 'Pick him or pick me because I can't put up with this,' and Cohen picked him."

That, Cohen said, isn't true.

Cohen said the firm dealt with the issue immediately, hiring a retired FBI investigator, Bob Cromwell, to look into the allegations. Cromwell said in an interview he spent about two weeks interviewing employees, including Khawam.

Shortly after the investigation was completed, Cohen told Goldberg in a Dec. 2, 2009, letter that he was prohibited from returning or having "any further contact with any female employees."

Khawam submitted her resignation that same day.

According to the complaint, Cohen brought Khawam on as an employee in May 2009 under the terms that she bring a high-profile client with her. As a result, the firm would pay Khawam a 30 percent commission on the value of case she had.

But an email states the figure was adjustable at Cohen's discretion. And when Khawam resigned, Cohen said she lost the right to that commission.

"This is all about greed," Cohen said in an interview. "This a bunch of whole lies and half truths. It's mind-boggling that any lawyer would file this piece of garbage."

Khawam asserts in her suit that Cohen threatened to sue her clients if they left with her.

But clients Joe Fuentes and Chris Russo said in interviews Cohen and the firm never threatened them. They stayed, Fuentes said, because they were more comfortable with Cohen.

Fuentes and Russo also said they never received a call from Florin to confirm the threats actually occurred.

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or 813-225-3111.

Former employee takes on prominent Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen 07/03/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 3, 2012 10:56pm]
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