Commissioners propose resolution calling for chair's resignation

by: PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Embattled Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen said Thursday that he hoped the public would reserve judgment about his affair with a county health care worker until a state investigation was complete. Cogen voted against a resolution calling for his resignation that other commissioners endorsed Thursday morning.Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen publicly fended off a request by his peers to resign on Thursday, asking them to allow a pending state Department of Justice investigation into his affair with a county employee to take its course.

“We have a system based on fact-finding before condemnation,” Cogen said, after his four peers on the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners supported a resolution asking him to resign immediately. “I deserve a chance for the facts to come out and the community deserves it too. I believe the investigation will find no abuse of power.”

Commissioners Loretta Smith, Deborah Kafoury and Diane McKeel spoke in favor of the resolution, which follows revelations that Cogen engaged in a nearly two-year sexual affair with county health program manager Sonia Manhas.

“This has obviously been a huge distraction in the public’s eye and it needs to end,” Kafoury said.

Smith said she was "very angry" about what has transpired, so angry that she doesn't want to discuss her feelings in public. Smith added that her position was not a personal attack on Cogen, but that his resignation was necessary to assure smooth operations in the county and uninterrupted services for residents.

Commissioners permitted citizens in the audience to testify about the resolution, and a parade of people, with a few exceptions, supported Cogen, who sat dispassionately while others addressed his sexual affair. Many praised his past work leading the county.

Perhaps not coincidentally, most but not all of his defenders from the audience Thursday were men, while the four female county commissioners sitting alongside him were asking for his resignation for sexual transgressions.

Ed Hershey, a former journalist and union spokesman who attends the same synagogue as Cogen, said the central issue was whether a private sexual affair was more consequential than affairs of government. Cogen exhibited terrible behavior, Hershey said. "But was it the equivalent of an impeachable offense? Why deliver the verdict before you get the facts?"

When the resolution came up for a vote, Cogen cast the lone dissenting vote, effectively killing the attempt to pass it via a "unanimous consent" motion. The other four commissioners, including Judy Shiprack — who advanced the resolution — voted in favor of it.

Investigation sought

Though the dispute surely will harm Cogen's working relations with his peers on the commission, he showed a determination Thursday to keep his post. Unless he changes his mind, that means the only way he could be ousted is with a recall campaign initiated by voters.

The commission's resolution came a day after Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill and Sheriff Dan Staton asked Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to begin a criminal investigation into the affair between Cogen and county employee Sonia Manhas.

Underhill and Staton requested the investigation Wednesday in a letter to Rosenblum. The letter was released to the press at 4 p.m. Wednesday.

In their letter, Underhill and Staton wrote that “as presented to the public, the facts could lead some to question whether any Oregon criminal laws had been violated. Without expressing any opinion as to whether any criminal laws had been violated or not, we have concluded that an investigation to answer that question is warranted.

“It is important that any investigation be and is perceived to be completely fair and impartial.

“Because of the close relationship between both of our offices and the chair’s office, we have concluded that, and (Rosenblum) concurred, that a law enforcement agency more removed from Multnomah County can best perform that task.”

Tarnished public image

The investigation is just another thing that could impact Cogen's once squeaky-clean public image. His once-promising political career might be dead as well.

Once touted as Portland mayor material or even a future Oregon governor, Cogen instead faces calls to resign.

Nevertheless, political observers say Cogen has a reservoir of good will among his peers and political base, which could help him weather the political storm if he navigates it deftly.

Jewel Lansing, the former city and county auditor who co-authored a history of Multnomah County government published last year, predicts Cogen ultimately may have to resign because of the intense media scrutiny and hits that he’s getting. However, she said his case seems of a different nature than past scandals that befell county leaders like former Sheriff Bernie Giusto and former County Commissioner Gordon Shadburne. Simply put, Cogen is “a good guy,” she said, and much more popular.

“As scandals go, this is clearly light,” said Len Bergstein, a veteran Oregon political consultant and Cogen supporter. The county chair exhibited “reckless behavior and bad judgment,” Bergstein said, but so far he views it as consensual sex between two adults and not a clear “abuse of power.”

Observers say Cogen hasn’t accumulated many political enemies, in contrast to former Mayor Sam Adams, whose sexual relationship with a young man sparked multiple recall campaigns.

“I think he’s got a lot of good will to fall back on,” Bergstein said of Cogen.

New climate at county

Multnomah County government was clearly in a bad spot just seven years ago, which some recall as the “Mean Girls” era because of the squabbling among female county commissioners and County Chair Diane Linn.

County government’s tattered reputation turned around after 2006, when political newcomer Ted Wheeler defeated Linn, and, not incidentally, when Cogen first took office as county commissioner. The two men were close allies as Wheeler restored public trust in county government, many observers say.

In 2010, when Wheeler was appointed state treasurer, Cogen moved into the chair’s post, and essentially continued in Wheeler’s footsteps.

“I think it’s clear that Cogen has brought, after Ted, a real stabilizing influence at the county,” said Gretchen Kafoury, a former county commissioner and Portland city councilor. “The whole dynamic changed,” she said.

She also maintains a window into county affairs as the mother of current county Commissioner Deborah Kafoury.

“They’re all working well together,” Gretchen Kafoury said of the county board. However, this issue is shifting day to day. She made that remark Monday, and two days later her daughter joined the three other county commissioners in asking Cogen to resign his post.

Deeds among misdeeds

While some of Cogen’s initiatives originated in the Wheeler era, he can lay claim to several major accomplishments since becoming county chair. County voters approved a new library district, freeing up millions of dollars for other county services. Arguably, that provided the best financial boost to Multnomah County government since the first property tax limitation passed in 1990.

Funds were raised and construction is now well under way for a new Sellwood Bridge, a safety issue plaguing the county for decades. Cogen and fellow commissioners have improved perennially frosty relations with the sheriff’s office, run by a separately elected county official, Sheriff Daniel Staton. Cogen also convinced the Portland Development Commission to pay $26.5 million for a new county human services building and related services, as part of the city’s new Education Urban Renewal Area downtown.

Gretchen Kafoury says Cogen’s sex scandal wouldn’t resonate so much with the public if it didn’t involve a county employee, and allegations that he helped advance Manhas’ career. But Kafoury, a pioneer in Oregon’s 1970s feminist movement, said Manhas wasn’t exactly an “innocent bystander” in this relationship.

Though Kafoury doesn’t excuse Cogen’s behavior, which she calls a “tremendous error in judgment,” she likes his progressive politics and effectiveness at the county helm.

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, said Cogen needs to clear the air with an independent review of his actions.

“The emails raise questions that need to be answered,” Moore says of some of the records that have emerged of communications between Cogen and Manhas.

Though Moore was never fully convinced Cogen was governor material, he does think Cogen can survive and run for re-election if he chooses. Voters often are more concerned about punishing politicians for corruption or mismanagement than for sexual affairs, he said.

Bergstein said Cogen still needs to come clean by addressing his personal mistakes in a broader way, such as before TV cameras.

Another political consultant, who asked to remain anonymous, felt Cogen sounded defensive in his admittance of the

affair. “You don’t make excuses or be defensive,” the consultant said. “People like to feel like there’s some remorse there.”

But voters can be forgiving. Oregon voters re-elected former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield after his multiple scandals. Two months ago, South Carolina voters elected scandal-plagued former Gov. Mark Sanford to Congress. In New York City, disgraced former Gov. Eliot Spitzer is attempting a comeback by running for city controller, while equally tarnished former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner is a leading candidate for mayor.

Opening for new candidates

Cogen likely will have to decide in the next couple months or so whether he’ll run for re-election next May, Moore said. Other candidates also are likely pondering whether to enter the race, which would either feature no incumbent or a Cogen weakened by scandal.

But running a countywide race remains expensive. Unlike say, runs for the Legislature, there aren’t a lot of lobbyists throwing around $1,000 or more campaign donations from well-funded political action committees with vested interests. Aside from public employee unions, there aren’t that many PACs that contribute big dollars to county races.

“What are you going to do, get it from the mental health professionals?” Moore says, half-jokingly.

Wheeler had the benefit of immense family wealth when he mounted his 2006 campaign. Cogen could turn to his past supporters, if it appears, as now, they aren’t abandoning him.

Aside from the other four members of the county commission, prospective candidates could emerge from the Legislature, Moore predicts. Legislative salaries are notoriously low, and county commission jobs pay very well.

Cogen’s position is very influential, Lansing noted, because the chair serves as the county’s chief executive. Though the local news media pay little attention to Multnomah County and devote far more of their time tracking City Hall, city councilors have less influence than the county chair, Lansing says, because they, along with the mayor, only oversee a slice of city government.

Cogen also has a not-so-secret weapon that he’s employed in past campaigns: Mark Wiener, the most influential political consultant in local politics.

Of course, before thinking about re-election, Cogen must brace for a possible recall campaign. But those campaigns are very difficult to finance and pull off successfully in Oregon.

“If you couldn’t get a recall against Sam Adams, I can’t see how you could get a recall against Jeff Cogen,” Bergstein said. “If the vote is on job performance, I think he beats just about everybody.”

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