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Cogen Alone Believes Cogen Should Stay

OPB | July 25, 2013 6:06 p.m. | Updated: July 25, 2013 7:24 p.m. | Portland

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Multnomah County chair Jeff Cogen is not giving up his position. It’s been more than a week since Cogen admitted he had a lengthy affair with health policy director Sonia Manhas.

Jeff Cogen

Jeff Cogen

Michael Clapp / OPB

Wednesday, state justice officials said they were opening a criminal investigation into the affair. That was just hours after Manhas resigned, allegedly under pressurefrom county officials.

Thursday was Cogen’s first public meeting since the affair.

Commissioners pushed Cogen to resign - but Cogen and his supporters pushed back.

Just minutes after gaveling in his first meeting after admitting to the affair, Cogen listened as commissioner Deborah Kafoury introduced the resolution for him to resign.

It said Cogen “diminished his ability to lead,” it mentioned “the appearance of inappropriate influence,” and concluded by saying the board “has lost confidence and trust” in Cogen.

Kafoury said bringing the resolution was difficult, because Cogen is a friend.

“But the position we find ourselves in today is not about him personally. It is about the ability of Multnomah County to move forward, and meet the needs of the community we are here to serve. This has obviously been a huge distraction in the public’s eye - and it needs to end,” Kafoury said.

County policy forbids intimate relationships between a supervisor and a direct underling. Manhas didn’t work directly for Cogen — but the two worked closely on health policy. The two also traveled together on county business, during the affair.

The state Attorney General is investigating whether the affair led to any laws being broken — like misuse of public funds. Cogen defended himself by calling on commissioners to wait to see what the investigation turns up.

“I believe the investigation will find no abuse of power. But in any event, why call for an investigation without being willing to even let it begin? The media has been filled with accusations, innuendo and judgments about my behavior. But we have a system based on fact-finding before condemnation,” Cogen said.

Cogen supporters turned against the county commissioners. Jim Wittenberg said the four female members of the commission teaming up against the chair reminded him of a time, eight years ago, when the women on the commission feuded publicly.  He targeted Deborah Kafoury - who comes from a powerful political family.

“We have a new group of ‘Mean Girls’ in office now, I hate to say that, but that’s what this represents. I think that each of you is a disgrace to your office. I knew Deborah’s dad, Steve, and her mother, Gretchen, and they never would have done this,” Wittenburg said.

Cogen’s longtime friend Ted Blazak suggested the commissioners were trying to get Cogen out of the way to further their own political careers.

“I hope and I pray that there is not political motivation here, that somebody doesn’t want his job - and that that might be a big force behind this resolution,” Blazak said.

Nearly the entire hour-long hearing proceeded with only Jeff Cogen mentioning Sonia Manhas by name. Portland activist Mary Eng reminded the board that Manhas had to leave.

“I don’t hear anyone sticking up for the woman - she might be a really fantastic worker, really good at her job. And I think the sexist coercion of her out of the county reminds me of nothing less than Nathaniel Hawthorn’s The Scarlet Letter,” Eng said.

The resolution to call for Cogen’s resignation failed. It needed a unanimous vote. Cogen was the only vote against it.

A Multnomah County spokesman says calls and emails to the county are running three-to-one for Cogen to resign.

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