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The Cogen Affair Emails: What's Going On Between The Smiley Faces?

OPB | July 19, 2013 4:43 p.m. | Portland

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Multnomah County Friday released to OPB more than 680 pages of emails between county board Chairman Jeff Cogen and county health policy advisor Sonia Manhas.

Jeff Cogen, Multnomah County Chair

Jeff Cogen, Multnomah County Chair

Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / OPB

Cogen acknowledged earlier this week that the two had an extra-marital affair. Now the county is looking into whether either of them breached any of the county’s ethics rules or personnel policies.

Among other things, Manhas was promoted last year, and many questions about her relationship with Cogen have centered around whether she benefitted from that relationship to get the promotion. 

Rob Manning has been reading through the emails, and he joins me now. Good afternoon, Rob.

Rob Manning: Good afternoon.

Eve Epstein: First, could you outline for us what kinds of ethics and personnel policies we’re talking about here? What are these polices designed to do?

Rob Manning: There are probably three main areas: county rules forbid sexual relationships between a supervisor and his or her direct report, and related to that – if there’s a higher ranking person in the supervisor chain, that person is not allowed to influence the boss of someone they’re in a relationship with. That’s the first one. Second, ethics rules indicate that a person should not materially gain from a sexual relationship with another person. And finally, county property – such as computers and email accounts – are not to be used for personal uses.

Eve Epstein: You and two of our interns, Sergio Cisneros and Kathryn Boyd-Batstone have been combing through these emails today. Is there evidence that the relationship between Jeff Cogen and Sonia Manhas ran afoul of any of those rules?

Rob Manning: On the last one – there are countless instances of Cogen and Manhas having personal discussions on county email. They plan lunches together, they talk about movies and concerts they’re attending together. And there are some messages suggesting they have a very close relationship. At one point, Manhas writes to Cogen: “I’m intrigued with what you shared on the drive back (from a concert they attended together) about marriage. Let me know if you’re interested in picking up that conversation some time. You can also tell me if this is totally an unwelcome inquiry.”

Cogen responds: “let’s get lunch again and we can continue our conversation.”

Both Manhas were and are married. And the two families had a connection. Back in 2011, Cogen’s children actually babysat for Manhas’ younger kids, for instance – something they discussed and agreed felt “weird” in emails released today.

Eve Epstein: So, those are areas that the County could look into as inappropriate uses of county email. What about evidence that the relationship had an effect in the public policy realm?

Rob Manning: So, the County has suggested that the personnel rules against intimate relationships may not apply to Cogen and Manhas because she didn’t report directly to Cogen. But, Manhas and Cogen emailed frequently – sometimes several times a day, both on personal matters and on public policy matters, because Manhas was working on policy related to food and other health issues, and those were issues that Cogen was keen to weigh in on.

Several times, Manhas lobbied Cogen in the professional realm. In at least three different instances, Manhas asked Cogen why other county staffers were being brought into meetings with the two of them. And there were instances when Manhas coached Cogen on how he should talk about the strategy of the county’s “tobacco policy” to her boss. In that email thread, Cogen agreed to say that the strategic changes were his “political” decision – and not “fabulous program staff” - which of course, would include Sonia Manhas.

Eve Epstein: One of the questions that has been raised around the relationship is whether the relationship had any bearing on Manhas’ promotion. Cogen has denied that he exerted any influence. Are there emails between the two around the time of her promotion?

Rob Manning: This is the most potentially damaging of accusations, and the emails don’t show much evidence of Cogen intervening in that job process. There’s one email thread, in which Manhas sends Cogen the job posting with a little “smiley face” emoticon, and Cogen emails back with a smily face emoticon. She does use Cogen as a reference on her application for that job.

Eve Epstein: Are there more documents that are likely to come to light?

Rob Manning: There are more records, but some of them are technically difficult to reproduce. Records of cell phone calls, text messages, google chat, possibly – have all been requested by reporters.

Meantime, the county attorney and human resources staff are looking into the relationship between county chair Jeff Cogen and health advisor Sonia Manhas to see if any personnel or ethical rules were broken.


Redacted emails released to OPB .pdf

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