Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen Admits to Affair With County Health Department Official

He says he has no plans to resign

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen tonight admitted an extramarital affair with a female county employee.

Cogen told WW Tuesday night in an interview about the affair at county headquarters he deeply regretted the harm he'd done to his wife and two children, and said he was sorry. 

"It was a mistake," Cogen says of the affair. "People will have to decide whether to forgive me or not. I'm hoping people will forgive me." 

Cogen identified the woman as Sonia Manhas, policy and planning director in the Multnomah County Health Department.

Manhas is a rising star at the county, handling its obesity and tobacco prevention programs. Cogen gave Manhas the Chair's Excellence Award in 2011. 

Multnomah County's human resources rules prohibit supervisors having sexual relations with people who work for them. 

Cogen says he believes the relationship did not violate county rules, even though he is the highest-ranking official in county government. "She is not my subordinate," Cogen says. "She doesn't report to me. It is my understanding it's not a violation of country rules."

County records show Manhas answers to Lillian Shirley, the director of the county's health department. Shirley in turn answers to Cogen.

"I know I have let people down," Cogen says. "I have thought about a lot of things, including resigning. I'm not going to. I need to focus on the work and continuing the positive things we are doing here."

Manhas has not responded to WW's requests for an interview.

Emails circulating through county government offices this week alleged Cogen was romantically involved with Manhas. 

In recent months, sources tell WW, county employees have noticed Cogen and Manhas spending time together. They both attended a conference in Atlanta. They also were seen together in Salem during the first week of May.

The affair became public on Monday when an anonymous tipster sent an email to all five county commissioners.

"Once again, I have been disappointed by the leadership at Multnomah County," the email said. "Employees at Multnomah County have spotted Chair Cogen kissing Sonia Manhas in front of the Kenton Library and in a booth and at a bar in Portland along with a few other 'sightings.' Keep in mind that Sonia is in charge of 'policy' at the health department.  This information is being spread among County employees. 

"This behavior shows lack of values, principles and judgement," the email continued. "You have a choice, you can ignore this or you can address it. But, it you choose to ignore this information, things will only get worse and morale will continue to decline.  What a shame if this information ever got leaked to the media……"

Cogen acknowledges traveling with Manhas to Salem twice and to a public health conference in Atlanta last year. He denies Manhas benefited in her job or career in any way because of the relationship.

"That is completely false," he says.

Cogen says he expects Manhas will remain a county employee.

"That's a question you should take up with her supervisor," he says. 

Cogen answered questions for about 30 minutes, red faced and often tearful. He said he told his wife, Lisa Pellegrino, on Tuesday about the affair.

"I should have told her a year ago," Cogen said. "I was afraid to tell her, because I was afraid she would leave me."

Cogen says he plans to take time off from his job to be with his family. He and Pellegrino have been married 23 years and together for 28.

"My wife is very upset," he added. "I wouldn't say it is resolved." 

Cogen has been a key figure in moving Multnomah County government out of an era characterized by petty, vindictive bickering and into a new period of of financial stability and socially progressive policy. 

A native of Miami, Florida, Cogen moved to Portland in 1992 with Pellegrino. Two years later, he co-founded Portland's first certified organic bakery, the Portland Pretzel Company. Cogen moved into public life through social-services work. He joined then-County Chair Beverly Stein's staff in 1999 after working as spokesman for Multnomah Commission on Children and Families. 

He became City Commissioner Dan Saltzman's chief of staff in 2003, where he helped Saltzman launch the Portland Children's Levy. (Pellegrino is director of the Children's Levy fund.) 

He won a seat on the board of county commissioners in 2006, and worked alongside then-County Chair Ted Wheeler in pulling Multnomah County out of the notorious "Mean Girls" era, when three commissioners openly feuded with then-Chair Diane Linn. In 2010, when Wheeler resigned to become Oregon State Treasurer, Cogen was appointed to his seat, and won the position in an election a month later.

Manhas, according to a biography published when she received the Chair's Excellence Award, lives in Northeast Portland with her husband and two daughters. She's a native of Vancouver, B.C.

County records show she was hired in 2000 and earned $98,517 in 2012.

Her primary duties include running the county's anti-obesity and smoking programs, and she's had a major role in implementing a $7.5 million grant for obesity prevention from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a campaign called "It starts here."

WW reporter Andrea Damewood contributed to this report.