Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen has acted stupidly and improperly, but has he done anything illegal or in violation of county policies?

The answer to that question, which should come soon from an independent investigation, will determine whether Cogen can remain as county chairman. It definitely appears Cogen has walked a very fine line between dumb behavior and official misconduct. His affair with an employee of the county Health Department violated the spirit, but perhaps not the letter, of county policies prohibiting such relationships between supervisors and their direct reports.

Emails between Cogen and the employee, Sonia Manhas, also show a disturbing pattern. The county released 680 pages of emails last week, along with expense reports this week. The emails reveal that Manhas exerted an unusual level of influence on Cogen and had lobbied to work in his office. She coached Cogen on how to present a particular issue to her own supervisor. Plus, the question remains of whether Cogen influenced Manhas’ promotion to director of policy and planning in the Health Department, and whether Cogen misused county funds to pay for his liaisons with Manhas.

In our view, Cogen has compromised himself to the point where he no longer can be effective in leading Multnomah County. Yet politicians don’t let go of their positions easily. So it’s likely that an independent investigation — which four county commissioners called for on Tuesday — is still needed to determine the extent of the damage Cogen caused.

Cogen’s fall is particularly disheartening because his leadership produced a number of worthy accomplishments for Multnomah County, including stabilization of the county budget and establishment of a countywide library district.

Now, however, Cogen joins a discouragingly long list of Oregon public officials who’ve brought disgrace upon themselves and disappointed their supporters by behaving badly. Cogen, thankfully, is no Neil Goldschmidt, but the public now has a chance to measure his transgressions against the likes of Sam Adams, David Wu, Bob Packwood, former Police Chief Derrick Foxworth and former Sheriff Bernie Giusto.

Cogen seems an unlikely person to follow in this tradition of shabby behavior, and for that reason alone he should consider whether his continuation in office is doing anything to advance the progressive Portland image he presumably wants to protect.

Contract Publishing

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