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Big cases, big fees, big conflicts

Tampa lawyer Barry Cohen has defended some of the bay area's most celebrated criminal cases, from helping a dance instructor who killed two children in a hit-and-run accident avoid prison, to a Valrico husband and wife accused of lying about their infant daughter's disappearance.

So what does Cohen, a tenacious ex-prosecutor, get out of winning such high-stakes cases? Some very high-dollar clients, apparently, including an Ormond Beach businessman who agreed to pay him a flat fee of $10-million to stave off a possible fraud indictment.

A lawsuit under way in Hillsborough Circuit Court tells the tale. In early 2001, Marc Zboch learned that a grand jury was looking at allegations concerning his former telemarketing firm. Panicked, he ditched a much less expensive attorney for Cohen, who agreed to serve as lead counsel and devote substantial staff resources to the case .

Two years later, the government closed its case against Zboch, without ever having filed charges. Cohen's online biography still boasts about saving Zboch from up to $20-million in restitution and 30 years in prison. But Zboch sued, accusing Cohen, 67, of delegating most of his work to colleagues, flubbing a crucial meeting with prosecutors that might have killed the case a year earlier, and doing no more than about $2.7-million worth of work.

The law firm denies neglecting Zboch, 43, and says he has no reason to complain about a "perfect result."

W.F. "Casey" Ebsary, a board-certified criminal trial lawyer in Tampa, said successful lawyers like Cohen can charge more because of the respect, and even fear, they inspire in prosecutors.

The Zboch lawsuit is not the first time Cohen has clashed with a former client over fees. In 1999, Cohen sought $1.2-million from Tampa businessman and client John Osterweil, who in turn accused Cohen of unfair tactics and sought a $500,000 refund.

Earlier, Cohen represented William A. LaTorre, a St. Petersburg chiropractor acquitted in the 1989 boating deaths of four teenagers. LaTorre subsequently declared bankruptcy and declined to pay Cohen's full $1.7-million fee.

Times staff researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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