PORTLAND, Ore. – While we don’t yet know the outcome of the state’s investigation of Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen, the court of public opinion certainly has weighed in.
The only person mum has been Cogen himself.
State investigators have begun their look at his use of county funds and whether they were used improperly in his relationship with county employee Sonia Manhas. They’ve frozen the release of any more public records to the media while the investigation is underway.
One burning question: Documents released earlier this week showed that during the couple's affair Cogen saved Manhas' Office of Policy and Planning in the health department from elimination by making a last-minute addition to its budget. In effect, the move doubled the program's budget.
The money was in the health department's budget, but only as a request if funds were left over. Every department has those extra requests for the chair to consider, but not all are granted. The question: Did Cogen's affair influence his decision to approve the health department request over something that didn't get funded?
At Thursday morning’s regular meeting for the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, several reporters and private citizens took to the public comment period to get their questions answered.
Cogen, who has declined multiple interviews since news of his affair with Manhas broke July 16, wasn’t too keen on the public inquiry.
Our reporter Hillary Lake rattled off a number of questions. Among them: Why do you think the public has lost confidence in you? Why did you add additional funding to Manhas’ department at the 11th hour? In what way did your personal relationship with her influence that? Cogen was silent.
“And you’re sitting here, sir, with a smile on your face. I’m wondering why?” Lake asked.
“I will say this is not a question-and-answer session. The matters that are being asked about are subject to an investigation, which I intend to cooperate with fully,” Cogen said. “It would not be appropriate for me to talk about the matters until the investigation is over.”
Lake reminded Cogen that he did not want to answer media questions even before the Oregon Attorney General’s investigation began.
Then, KATU’s assignment editor Colin Miner asked Cogen why he wouldn’t respond to requests to even be interviewed about county matters. Cogen indicated perhaps he would talk to reporters about official county business.
“Can I get your commitment?” Miner asked.
Cogen paused before replying: “I will talk to you about that after the meeting.”
Other private citizens also spoke about the Cogen affair, including an activist who goes by the name “Lightning.” He questioned if state investigators conclude there wasn’t a criminal violation, “could Sonia Manhas possibly have her job back?”
After the board meeting, commissioners didn't want to discuss the scandal. Commissioner Loretta Smith said she wanted to focus on regular county business.
“We have to make sure the people's business is done. And I think that’s what we’re attempting to get done,” she said.
DOJ requests county hold off honoring public records requests
In a letter dated July 31, Darin Tweedt, chief counsel for the Oregon Department of Justice's criminal division, requested that Multnomah County no longer release public records concerning the affair between Cogen and Manhas to the media and the public until the criminal investigation is complete.
"Release of Multnomah County records to individuals or entities other than the Oregon Department of Justice at this time may interfere with our criminal investigation," he wrote the county's attorney Jenny Madkour.
Multnomah County spokesman David Austin said in an email Thursday that the county will comply with the request until the state DOJ's investigation is complete.
Since Cogen admitted to the extramarital affair, media organizations have filed numerous public records requests under Oregon's public records law. Many of the thousands of pages of emails, calendars and other documents released to the media have shed light on the relationship between Cogen and Manhas and raised questions of possible conflicts of interest.