PORTLAND, Ore. - The firestorm over a scandal involving a Multnomah County Commissioner and an affair he had with a county employee has blown up.
It was just a week ago that Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen admitted to the affair and now the county's district attorney and sheriff have requested that the Oregon attorney general investigate his actions. And on the heels of that announcement, Multnomah County Commissioners also said they would introduce a resolution on Thursday calling for Cogen's immediate resignation.
The woman Cogen had been involved with, Sonia Manhas, has already submitted her resignation.
On Wednesday, we tried to get in touch with Manhas for her reaction to the events that quickly unfolded that day. She was not home the first time we knocked on her door, but was there a second time we tried. She didn't come to the door, she did later text KATU Reporter Mary Loos: "I know you want to hear from me, but im trying to settle my girls in for sleep time. Do u want a statement by text?"
We asked if she would be willing to do a phone interview after her children were in bed, but she texted back "send by text but no promises on what I address." So we sent her the following questions:
- Do you think Jeff Cogen will resign?
- Do you think Jeff Cogen is being held to a different standard than you? Were you forced to resign or was it your choice?
- What else still hasn't come out about your relationship? When did it actually start? Why did it end?
- Are you worried your accomplishments in the Health Dept. will be marred by this? Do you hope that you leave a legacy of that work and not controversy?
We asked for a response by 9:30 p.m., saying we were on deadline and her reply was "will try." We did eventually get a response from her late Wednesday evening saying she would be sending us an e-mail, which we did receive. She also sent us a separate text addressing our question about whether she felt Cogen was being held to a different standard:
"Jeff should at least be held to the same standard as I have been and in fact a higher one given that he was elected by and for the people. We both need to step aside and let Multnomah County move forward without any further distraction by us."
Below is the e-mail we received from Manhas. You'll notice that if you had read the letter she sent to her colleagues, much of this e-mail is similar to it. However, she did add some new details about how the relationship started and why it ended. We've highlighted that portion:
I sent this out earlier today. It's too long, but there are bits in here that address what you were asking:
I’ve been wanting to publicly share my side of this very complicated story, but I have been trying to work focus on coordination and communications 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 signed that letter.
I am sad that I was not given an opportunity by county and health department leadership to explain the inaccuracies and questions related to my professional performance that have been raised about by the media over this last week before being asked to leave - even if my departure from the organization was the inevitable outcome. I was waiting to be interviewed by the county before speaking out publicly.
But now I can begin to share my story and offer some of the truth the public may be seeking. The media barrage at my house is taking a toll on my family and neighbors, and I respectfully ask that the media stop coming by the house. I will do my best to make myself available at times that respect the needs of my family during this incredibly stressful time.
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 efforts towards the county’s mission.
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. But to be clear, this was never about a job or salary. It’s certainly not what a married politician wants to talk about, but it was an affair of the heart and story of love. It would be a betrayal to who I am to diminish it now. But, it was also a relationship that could never be and should never have started. I truly regret the pain we have caused my family as well as Jeff’s family.
The affair started in August 2011. It started as a result of intellectual chemistry, and it grew as we supported each other through personal tragedies. Over time, I became increasingly confused and distraught about what we were doing, but we continued and I accept my responsibility in that. In June 2013, I told Jeff that the relationship couldn’t continue as it was. We were still in conversations about what a path forward could look like when the affair became public.
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 Health Department supervisors. No matter how many times the claim is printed, it is just not true that I was working to undermine Lillian Shirley’s role or authority as Department Director. The bulk of the email exchanges helped advance legitimate public health work, and I believe that I communicated regularly and appropriately about the progress of policy and planning activities with my supervisors. I believe that the authenticity of this work, Jeff’s role in encouraging direct communication, and my efforts to keep my supervisors appropriately informed would have become apparent with basic explanation.
While I am disappointed about not being able to continue my public health work at Multnomah County, I hope that by me stepping out of the way, Health Department employees will be able to get back to the work that really matters. Multnomah County is an organization that prides itself in addressing issues of equity, power, gender, and race, and as a part of moving forward, I hope that thoughtful conversations will be held to understand how these dynamics are playing out in the county at this very moment in time.
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 partnership with our incredible network of non-profit partners. I have so much respect for the many community partners I have had the opportunity to work with over these twelve years, and want to thank them for their incredible advocacy and successes to promote a healthy community for all of us.
I am confident that my record will stand and I will re-build, especially with the love and support of my good friends and family who are walking this journey with me.
Thanks for listening. Sonia Manhas
At least three of the four county commissioners had to support the resolution calling for Cogen's resignation in order to get it on Thursday's meeting agenda. In order for it to become official, they all have to vote in favor of it and then it's up to Jeff Cogen to respond.
We tried to get Cogen to talk about the developments on Wednesday. KATU Reporter Erica Nochlin asked him "I know you were originally saying that you didn't want to resign - has this changed your mind at all?" He told us "no comment" and shut the door.
If the board approves the call for resignation on Thursday, it is likely Cogen will step down, but he doesn't have to - he could remain the board chair. He would then only be out of office if voters take action at the next election, or through the long recall process.