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Lisa Loving of The Skanner News
Published: 24 July 2013

Sonia Manhas at a signing event for faith leaders who pledged to eliminate junk food from their facilities, December, 2011

In a bizarre, packed-full meeting of the Multnomah County Commission Thursday morning, County Chair Jeff Cogen scuttled his colleagues' symbolic vote of no confidence against him for admitting to an extramarital affair with a county employee.

In an odd procedural twist, the four County Commissioners -- all women -- submitted a non-binding resolution calling for Cogen to resign, but the move required a unanimous vote to pass; Cogen himself voted against it.

Meanwhile, testimony from the floor ranged from name-calling against the female Commissioners to talk of sex acts -- mostly supporting Cogen.

After Commissioner Loretta Smith spoke at length on the commission's disappointment in Cogen's poor judgment, Cogen himself apologized repeatedly but insisted there is no proof that he did anything illegal and that he intends to keep his seat.

The claim is remarkable because Cogen admits he had the affair, and under county rules intimate relationships with subordinates are forbidden.

Cogen is also accused of using taxpayer funds to pay for at least one hotel room with his lover, and helping her get a promotion within her department at the county.

Most of the testimony given by the public ran in Cogen's favor, with many who spoke saying that they personally know Cogen and his family. A common theme was kicked off at the beginning by Edward Hershey, who said that "affairs" are not "an impeachable offense," and called out Judy Shiprack as the resolution's author, accusing her of "burying" Cogen "before the facts are in."

(Later Thursday afternoon County spokesman David Austin offered a running tally of phone calls received on the issue, which skewed towards Cogen's resignation).

Jimmy Wittenberg asked the commissioners which one was his representative, leaving all four at a loss as to where he lived; in any event, Wittenberg threatened to vote out whichever one is his representative once he figures out who that is.

Wittemberg cited a church community in Northeast Portland which, he said, would "vote and work against every one of you actively." (That group, contacted by The Skanner News, denied any involvement in the issue whatsoever.) "We have a new group, we have a new group of 'mean girls' into the office now," Wittemberg said. "I hate to say that, but that's what this represents."

On Wednesday, Sonia Manhas, the Multnomah County policy manager implicated in an extramarital affair with County Chair Jeff Cogen resigned, and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum agreed to investigate Cogen's actions to avoid a conflict of interest for Multnomah County law enforcement that would otherwise have the job of looking into it.

That's on top of a separate investigation announced yesterday by four Multnomah County commissioners, who Wednesday drafted the resolution calling for Cogan to resign.

Officials say Sonia Manhas signed a "separation agreement" today during the noon hour, terminating her employment and requiring a doctor's note to explain why she is taking sick leave though Aug. 30, "when you agree to resign," it said.

For his part, Cogan still insists he will not quit. A half-hour interview with him by KGW reporter Laural Porter aired Tuesday night in which the County Chair appeared to visibly fight back tears as he described his admiration for Manhas' health department work and his regret for the fact that they "crossed the boundaries."

Manhas' separation document was released to the media Wednesday afternoon along with Manhas' personal letter to her coworkers, apologizing for the "for the harm, disruption, and distraction that my actions have caused to the good work that Multnomah County employees, particularly that Health Department employees, take on every day as public servants."

The separation agreement, signed by Manhas, requires that she not sue the county; the county also agrees not to sue Manhas, to allow her to keep her health insurance through Sept. 30, and to provide her with "a mutually agreed neutral letter of reference and an exit interview upon request."

Manhas' promotion this year to director of the Health Department's Office of Policy and Planning is now under a cloud due to alleged influence on the part of Cogan, who was her job reference and, during the hiring process, her lover.

County officials announced Wednesday afternoon that Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton and District Attorney Rod Underhill have asked the Attorney General to investigate whether any criminal laws were broken during the two-year love affair between the County Chair and the health department manager.

"Because of the close relationship between both of our offices and the chair's office we have concluded, and you have concurred, that a law enforcement agency more removed from Multnomah County can best perform that task," wrote Underhill and Staton, in an undated memo to Rosenblum also released Wednesday.

In its resolution "Calling for Jeffrey S. Cogan's Immediate Resignation," released after 5 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, commissioners list four reasons why he should step down, including "inappropriate conduct;" "the appearance of inappropriate influence to county business;" "real or perceived misuse of county assets to further a personal and professionally inappropriate relationship;" and a "loss of trust and confidence" in his judgment.

The resolution is dated Thursday, July 25; it was not yet listed on the board agenda for its Thursday meeting as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.


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