Manhas resigns in wake of Cogen affair

Manhas resigns in wake of Cogen affair
Sonia Manhas (left) and Jeff Cogen

PORTLAND, Ore. – Sonia Manhas resigned from the Multnomah County Health Department on Wednesday, a little more than a week after Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen admitted to an extramarital affair with her.

In a letter to her colleagues announcing her resignation, Manhas expressed regret that the affair had distracted from the department’s work.

“I am deeply, deeply apologetic 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,” Manhas wrote.

Read the full letter

“It is true that I made a grave error: I let myself be led by my heart, and I take full responsibility for the choices I made in my personal life. While it is a personal matter to me, I recognize that a part of my personal world has collided with your work, and so I feel it’s important to clarify my intent with you.”

A letter from Multnomah County Attorney Jenny Madkour to to Manhas, signed by Manhas, said Manhas will be on paid sick leave through Aug. 30 - a sum of about $8,500 - if she obtains a doctor's note justyifying it.  She will also continue to receive medical insurance through Sept. 30.

In return, Manhas agreed not to sue the county.

"We've been in discussions the last few days and today she agreed to resign," said Multnomah County communications director David Austin. "One thing I do want to say is a lot county employees are still working very hard we have a lot of important work to do serving people in need and that work as to continue.”

Cogen returned to work on Monday and has said he committed no violations of the county’s code of ethics because he was not Manhas’ direct supervisor.

Manhas denied her promotion to her current position came as a result of her relationship with Cogen.

“I worked hard for my promotion, and the hiring process, mired in Health Department politics, was grueling and stressful,” she wrote. “I can see how I have changed public health practice in the Health Department, and I am proud of the activities that I helped set in motion in collaboration with our incredible network of community partners. I realize I made a mistake and accept the damage created by my actions.”

The Multnomah County Commissioners issued a statement Tuesday that they are requesting an outside investigation of Cogen to find out if he “misused county funds or other county resources.”


Read Sonia Manhas's letter to her county colleagues: 

I’ve been wanting to share my side of this very complicated, very public story, but I have been trying to focus on communications and coordination with the county as an employee. Yesterday, when I requested a meeting to find out if there were any changes in my status as an employee, I was notified that a meeting could not happen until I signed a letter of separation. Today, I sent in my signed letter, and I would like to close the loop with you as colleagues.
 
I am sad that I was not given an opportunity to explain my perspective and the inaccuracies related to my professional work that have been raised in the media over the last week to county and health department leadership before being asked to leave, even if my departure was the inevitable outcome.
 
I am deeply, deeply apologetic 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.  This work to improve the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors is so important, and it is incredibly painful to accept that I have interrupted and discredited any of your efforts towards the Health Department’s mission. I am distraught to hear about the badgering by media at your worksites and even at some of your homes. I have been experiencing that myself, and I know how unsettling it is. I hope that by me stepping out of your way, you all will be able to get back to the work that really matters.
 
It is true that I made a grave error: I let myself be led by my heart, and I take full responsibility for the choices I made in my personal life. While it is a personal matter to me, I recognize that a part of my personal world has collided with your work, and so I feel it’s important to clarify my intent with you. The personal relationship with Jeff was never about a job or salary. It is certainly not what a politician wants to say, but it was an affair of the heart. It would be a betrayal to who I am to describe it in a diminishing way now. But of course, the reality is that the relationship could never have been and should never have started.
 
I have put in tireless hours to advance the Health Department’s mission. My professional work with Jeff in his role as Chair was intended for one purpose: to improve the health of the community. The 700 pages of email over a two year period are testimony to the incredible amount of work we have taken on to improve the lives of county residents. I believe that much of the emails printed by the media were taken out of context and misconstrued, particularly when it came to speculating about my communications and relationships with my supervisors. I believe that the bulk of the email exchanges helped advance legitimate public health work, and I communicated regularly and appropriately about the progress of policy and planning activities with my supervisors.  It is just not true that I was working to undermine Lillian’s authority. I believe that the authenticity of this work, Jeff’s role in encouraging direct communication, and my efforts to appropriately communicate with my supervisors would have become apparent with basic explanation.
 
I am proud of my work over the last twelve years to build the Health Department’s capacity for prevention, community-based planning, and public health policy development. I worked hard for my promotion, and the hiring process, mired in Health Department politics, was grueling and stressful. I can see how I have changed public health practice in the Health Department, and I am proud of the activities that I helped set in motion in collaboration with our incredible network of community partners. I realize I made a mistake and accept the damage created by my actions. I also accept that mistakes happen, and I never claimed perfection. I truly enjoy the challenge of finding innovative ways to do good work, and looking ahead, I am confident that I will re-build, especially with the support and love of my girls, John, and friends who are walking this journey with me.
 
Your work is so important, and I hope you will push forward. As a part of moving ahead, as an organization that prides itself in addressing issues of equity, power, gender, and race, I hope that thoughtful conversations will be held in the Health Department to understand how these dynamics are playing out in the county and in the department at this very moment in time.

To the many of you who reached out to me during this difficult time, particularly to the Community Wellness & Prevention team, thank you so very much. To the many of you who I’ve worked with over the twelve years, thank you for your collaboration and public service.