“My family is hurting,” Cogen told WW on July 16. “My wife is very upset, and I feel terribly about it.”
The most powerful elected official in county government was red in the face, short of breath and running his hands through his hair. He sometimes had trouble speaking through tears.
But eight days later, Cogen’s story about the liaison is on the rocks—and the holes in his story could sink his political career.
The documents Multnomah County released in response to public-records requests over the past week have been humiliating for Cogen—his emails to Manhas are filled with smiley faces and exclamations like “Yippee!,” while Manhas’ are packed with admiration, referring to him as “rock star, Jeff Cogen.”
But as Cogen returns to work this week, the unresolved questions about his abuse of power threaten not only his credibility but that of the county government as well.
Late on July 23, his four commission colleagues asked for an outside investigation of Cogen’s actions.
As the highest-ranking official on Multnomah County’s elected five-member board, Cogen, 51, wields far greater sway over the county’s $469 million general fund budget than his better-known counterpart, Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, does over city operations.
At issue for Cogen, who has served as county chairman since 2010 and was first elected to the commission in 2006, is whether he’s telling the truth about the affair—and more importantly, how it influenced county operations.
In a 30-minute interview with reporters from WW and The Oregonian on July 16, Cogen made a series of claims about his relationship with Manhas and whether it played a role in her promotion and her department’s business.
In the week since that interview, emails, calendars and additional reporting show a number of the claims Cogen made about his affair with Manhas, 40, were either only partially true or outright falsehoods.
Cogen’s shaky story casts doubt on his fitness to lead Oregon’s largest county. It also raises questions about some of Cogen’s top policy initiatives—the public health programs he pursued and publicized at Manhas’ advice.
Here are the key claims he made, in ascending order of seriousness:
Cogen’s claim: He says he ended his affair with Manhas, who earns $103,299 as the county health department’s director of policy and planning, “about two months ago.”
The records show: It’s unclear when the affair ended. Cogen’s calendar indicates on July 11 he scheduled a lunch appointment with Manhas for July 18. Then, after an anonymous email surfaced July 15, accusing the pair of having an “inappropriate” relationship, records show Cogen erased the lunch meeting from his schedule at 2:34 pm that day.
There’s also the odd coincidence that both Cogen and Manhas traveled with their families to Vancouver, B.C., for the July Fourth holiday. Cogen says he “talked to her beforehand about restaurants and stuff” but denies seeing her or talking to her in Canada. Asked whether he texted or communicated with Manhas electronically while in Vancouver, however, Cogen said, “I don’t know.”
Cogen’s claim: He didn’t misuse county resources on the affair.
It’s clear he used public resources. Whether he did so appropriately is in the eye of the beholder. Last week, Cogen owned up to traveling to Atlanta in February 2012 with Manhas for a Centers for Disease Control conference at a total cost of $2,238 and traveling to Salem twice with her during the past legislative session to testify on tobacco issues. When asked if they took other trips, Cogen was vague: “Not that I can think of right now,” he said.
The records show: In February 2013, Cogen arranged to travel again to Atlanta, this time with a group of 50 Portlanders visiting that city on a “best practices” tour. Members of the Portland delegation were all booked to stay at the same hotel, the Renaissance Atlanta Midtown, where they’d pay $199 per room per night. But records show Cogen canceled his reservation in March and rebooked a $249 room at the Loews Atlanta Hotel six blocks away, specifying that he wanted a king-size bed. Manhas’ calendar shows she took a vacation April 9-11, when Cogen was in Atlanta.
Late on July 23, both Manhas and Cogen acknowledged they went to Atlanta in April—suggesting Cogen’s memory is short.
Cogen’s claim: Cogen says Manhas’ promotion resulted from a fair and open process, and that she won her job competively.
The anonymous email that prompted Cogen’s confession said Manhas was “basically ‘appointed’ into her current position as opposed to a fair, transparent process.” “There was a process,” Cogen told WW. “There were five candidates, and she won.”
The records show: On July 2, 2012, the health department posted a new job—director of policy and planning. Records show Manhas forwarded the posting to Cogen via email, accompanied only by a smiley face. Cogen responded with a smiley face of his own—which suggests the job posting was no surprise to either of them. Then, on July 10, Manhas applied for the job. She listed as one of her two references Cogen, the county’s highest-ranking official.
The process was not as Cogen characterized it. Unusually for a position that pays six figures, the job was an internal posting, which meant Multnomah County employees only could apply. That immediately disqualified two of the five applicants. Of the remaining three candidates, two dropped out before the interview process. That left only Manhas in the running—she got the job and a 20 percent pay increase, to $98,517.
On Aug. 21, after she had applied, Manhas forwarded Cogen another internal county update about the hiring process. And when she was informed she had been selected, Manhas forwarded Cogen that announcement, too.
“Damn,” Cogen replied, “that Sonia woman sounds great!”
Cogen’s claim: Manhas is not his subordinate.
That matters because county personnel policies prohibit direct supervision by “a person with whom the employee has an intimate relationship.” Cogen said he didn’t violate those rules because Manhas reports to health department director Lillian Shirley, who in turn reports to county Chief Administrative Officer Joanne Fuller, who reports to Cogen.
“She is not my subordinate,” Cogen told WW. “She doesn’t report to me.”
The records show: Cogen is technically correct that Manhas did not report directly to him. But in practical terms, they worked closely. Two months before she applied for the job promotion, in April 2012, Manhas wrote Cogen and asked to report to him.
“At this point,” she wrote, “my thought is I land in your office one day a week to attend and share information about your staff meetings. Depending on [chief of staff] Marissa [Madrigal]’s input, I’d be open to two days.”
Cogen wrote back he preferred she visit two days a week, but he would “totally defer to you on what feels right.”
Their collaboration was not an isolated incident.
Records released by the county last week included dozens of instances in which they discussed a range of policies; worked jointly on talking points and strategy; and, in some cases, arranged to cut Manhas’ boss, Shirley, out of the communications loop.
On Aug. 30, 2012, for example, Manhas warned Cogen that Shirley might visit him with concerns that staff members were “slowing down the process” on anti-tobacco policy.
“Maybe when she brings it up, you can reinforce (as I also said) that you want to pace with BPA ban first [Bisphenol A is a toxic chemical used in some plastics]—nothing to do with our capacity. Is that okay?”
Cogen replied he was happy to tell her boss he was to blame. “Don’t worry,” he wrote, “I’ll make it clear to Lillian that the decision to slow down was my political instinct not the fabulous program staff who made it clear they would meet whatever crazy timeline I imposed on them! :)”
She wrote him back to say thanks.
“Sometimes this stuff gets weird…,” Manhas wrote to Cogen. “another reason I would rather work directly for you :))”
Emails show multiple occasions when Manhas wrote Cogen to run health department programs by him personally—on two occasions explicitly noting that she wanted his top policy adviser, Emerald Bogue, not to know about their conversations.
On June 23, 2013, Manhas forwarded Cogen an email from Bogue thanking Manhas for writing a policy brief on anti-tobacco efforts.
“Look how sweet Emerald is!” Manhas wrote him. “This is why how we navigate our roles with tobacco is so important to me—it’s so key that she thinks it’s your call.”
Cogen’s claim: His affair with Manhas didn’t affect county business. “My personal private relationship with her was inappropriate,” he said, “but it didn’t cross over into helping her in an inappropriate way at work.”
The records show: It’s not clear whether Cogen fell in love with Manhas or her priorities, but it is clear she advised Cogen frequently—emailing him suggestions on high-profile policy decisions, including a ban on the chemical BPA, the pursuit of a tobacco tax, a ban on coal trains, and the fluoridation of Portland’s water.
Cogen also championed Manhas’ projects in the health department—especially programs on exercise and healthy food. He appeared on public-access television in December 2011 to talk about fighting child hunger—after getting his talking points in a one-on-one meeting with Manhas.
On Jan. 4, 2013, Manhas emailed two members of Cogen’s staff, asking whether she should include the Multnomah Food Summit in her budget—then emailed him alone a minute later, asking him to weigh in. “Okee dokee,” he replied. “Let’s chat.”
Five months later, Cogen’s proposed county budget doubled general fund money for food and wellness programs, including the Multnomah Food Summit. It added $462,000 in county money to replace an expiring federal grant.
As recently as this month, Manhas continued to exert influence on Cogen. On July 1, 2013, she wrote him to warn that Commissioner Diane McKeel was raising questions about the healthy food and beverage guidelines Manhas oversees.
“Likely will be fine,” Manhas wrote, “but I may ask for your help to assure her these are reasonable steps to take [regarding] good stewardship of public funds. I do expect employee blow back.”
Cogen replied two minutes later.
“Got it,” he wrote. “Just let me know what you want me to do… :)”