Sonia Manhas, the Multnomah County health department employee who had an extended affair with County Chairman Jeff Cogen, has resigned, saying she was forced out by county officials.
In a letter to media, Manhas says she was forced to sign a letter of severance before being allowed to meet with her boss, health department director Lillian Shirley. Shirley reports to Cogen.
Manhas signed the letter today shortly after noon. Her severance agreement says she won't sue the county, in return for some continuing health insurance coverage.
This morning, Manhas first told The Oregonian county officials were trying to force her out of a job because of her affair with Cogen.
Also today, WW examined five claims by Cogen now undermined by records and reporting. Manhas' resignation casts further doubt on one of them.
Her statement to media this afternoon also contradicts Cogen's claim on July 16 that the affair ended two months ago. She says she broke up with him in June.
"Over time, I became increasingly confused and distraught about what we were doing, but we continued and I accept my responsibility in that," Manhas says. "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."
In a second letter, sent to colleagues sent at 12:33 pm today, Manhas again says she was forced to quit. She says her relationship with Cogen was "an affair of the heart."
"The personal relationship with Jeff was never about a job or salary," she writes. "It is certainly not what a politician wants to say, but it was an affair of the heart. It would be a betrayal to who I am to describe it in a diminishing way now. But of course, the reality is that the relationship could never have been and should never have started."
Here is the statement Manhas emailed to media today. More as this story develops.
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