On Tuesday evening, after Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen admitted to reporters from Willamette Week and The Oregonian that he’d been having an affair for 18 months, he chose to lay down in the back seat of a SUV driven by a staffer rather than face another reporter.
As my colleague Bob Heye pointed out that night in his report, you could clearly see the evening light catch a glint of Cogen’s wedding ring as he was sped away.
It was a moment that was not lost on his colleagues on the county commission and people who have known the once-rising star a long time and count themselves among his friends.
Cogen’s admission has brought out very complicated feelings among these people, none of whom want to go on the record because they don’t want to be seen as piling on. At the same time, there are things that they believe need to be spelled out.
Watching Cogen in the back seat was brutal, they say, because since taking office, he has been one of those people perceived as never backing down from a tough stand.
He earned their respect by taking tough stands, working hard, working at bringing people together and building the reputation of the county. There are not many politicians who are as well-liked and respected as Cogen.
At least as well-liked and respect as Cogen was until Tuesday.
Because of how much they like him, because of how much they respect him, the sting from the sense of betrayal they now feel is that much more painful.
They want him to come back from this, to get his personal life in order and then return to work. But they are not sure he will be able to – at least not in the short term.
Even his colleagues on the commission are expressing skepticism, wondering even if he does return to work, how effective can he be? Right now – and they know things are still very fresh, still developing – Cogen is a giant distraction, making it hard to focus on Multnomah County business.
The four other commissioners say they are disappointed by what Cogen did and that are significant questions that need to be answered.
Wednesday afternoon they expressed the belief the county attorney would investigate and provide answers for the people of Multnomah County.
By night, that belief had turned to skepticism after the attorney told media outlets early indications are that no rules have been broken.
How thorough an investigation could have been done in a day, they wonder.
Cogen says that the affair was conducted over lunches and in area hotels.
Has anyone gone through the schedules and expense reports to determine how much, if any, of the affair was conducted on county time?
And then there’s the question of the county’s rules on nepotism.
They state – “the County requires that relationships described…are subject to disclosure to the employee’s Department Director.”
And “relationships subject to disclosure, within the supervisory chain of command” include “persons with whom the employee has formed an intimate relationship.”
It’s not about whether Cogen was her direct supervisor.
More than one person has wondered aloud whether the best thing for Cogen and the county would be for him to resign, focus on his family and mount a comeback at a later time.
It’s not that they don’t want him around – Cogen’s colleagues believe he has helped make the County a better place.
They also fear that what he has done is undermine those accomplishments.