PORTLAND, Ore. – After hearing a scathing call on Thursday from all four Multnomah County commissioners for him to resign, Chairman Jeff Cogen told them no.
Instead, he decried a “rush to judgment” by the media and other public officials of his extramarital affair with Sonia Manhas – one that has raised suspicions because it spilled into county-paid trips and on-the-job lunches. Manhas, the former policy and planning director of the county’s health department, had also received a promotion during her affair with Cogen.
“I understand why people are upset. I understand why my colleagues are upset,” Cogen said at the Thursday board meeting. “I don’t understand the rush to judgment.”
Cogen called for the investigation to take place and said he was confident officials wouldn’t find any wrongdoing. The Oregon Attorney General has launched an investigation to determine whether there were criminal violations.
“I’m here because I care about the work,” he said, a pained but defiant look on his face. “I deserve a chance for the facts to come out.”
When it was time for commissioners to vote on the emergency order calling for his resignation, all of them voted in favor, while Cogen gave the dissenting no vote. The order needed to be unanimous, so Cogen was able to effectively scuttle the resolution about himself.
A number of the Cogen supporters in the audience applauded.
When he left the roughly two-hour meeting, a throng of reporters and photographers followed him, firing questions about his reasoning for staying in the position. Cogen said very little as he made his way to the elevators, a smile plastered on his face.
"I have no further comments. I've spoken at the meeting. That's all I'm going to be saying," Cogen told reporters.
Asked whether he apologized to Manhas, he said: "I have apologized to Sonia." Asked whether he forced her to resign, he said no. He also indicated he wasn't nervous about the criminal investigation.
Pressed to sign a separation letter on Wednesday, Manhas resigned. She later told the media, including KATU, that she believed Cogen should resign, as well.
Thursday, new emails were released from when Manhas received the promotion last September. They show her overwhelming excitement over the new position; she passed the news along to dozens of friends and colleagues.
She underscores that it was hard work that got her the job.
“What a whirlwind!! I am so excited," she wrote to one person. "I am the youngest on the leadership team by quite a bit, and in an organization of 900 people, I’m starting to register on how far I have come.”
Before Cogen addressed the board, he heard fiery remarks from two of the commissioners.
“To say the least, I’m disappointed,” said Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith. “It has ripped us all apart.”
She said she’s calling for Cogen’s resignation because a “fractured” board cannot lead the residents of Multnomah County and believes the public should be governed by transparent leaders.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve taken in my political career,” Smith said.
After the meeting, commissioners said they were saddened Cogen chose not to take heed of their request.
"I think this is very painful for all of us," said Commissioner Deborah Kafoury. "It's time for Jeff to resign. I believe I have the backing, not just of all the commissioners, but of the (county) staff."
Many voice support
The commissioners’ remarks were in sharp contrast to the majority of folks who spoke during the public comment:
Many were admittedly friends of Cogen -- and campaign contributors, as Willamette Week learned; nearly all of them, 19 out of 23, voiced support for his work as chairman and called for further investigation before passing judgment.
One man said Cogen made a mistake, “but is it equivalent to an impeachable offense?”
Another person said: "This is a distraction because we are letting it be."
After the meeting, the county's spokesman said he had heard Cogen had called "a few friends" up Wednesday night, asking them to voice support.