Scandal shrouds Cogen’s future

FILE - Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen. Undated photo. (Portland Tribune)
FILE - Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen. Undated photo. (Portland Tribune)

Multnomah County commissioners will consider a resolution Thursday morning calling on Chair Jeff Cogen to resign because of his affair with health program manager Sonia Manhas.

Commissioners will vote on the resolution, which came from Commissioner Judy Shiprack’s office, as part of their regular meeting. The resolution is part of the meeting’s consent agenda, which means it could be adopted without discussion.

County spokesman David Austin said the resolution has sparked discussion among the commissioners prior to Thursday’s meeting.

“There’s still, as you might imagine, a lot of dialogue going on about this,” Austin said Wednesday afternoon.

The resolution comes as 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 says 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 says, and much more popular.

“As scandals go, this is clearly light,” says Len Bergstein, a veteran Oregon political consultant and Cogen supporter. The county chair exhibited “reckless behavior and bad judgment,” Bergstein says, 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 says 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,” says Gretchen Kafoury, a former county commissioner and Portland city councilor. “The whole dynamic changed,” she says.

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 says of the county board.

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, says 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.

“I don’t think it’s going to have a lot of repercussions,” she says of the scandal. “I don’t predict a disaster.”

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove, says Cogen needs to clear the air by seeking an independent review of his actions, instead of relying on county attorneys that work under him.

“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 says.

Bergstein says 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 says. “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 says. 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-jok ingly.

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 notes, 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 says. “If the vote is on job performance, I think he beats just about everybody.”

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