Clutching Our Pearls 

What Really Matters in the Cogen Affair

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JEFF COGEN, chairman of Multnomah County, returned to work Monday, July 22, after telling a spokesman he wouldn't talk to reporters about his affair with a county employee, "tearfully" acknowledged last week, and that he might not ever.

Cogen quickly vowed not to resign—promising he broke no county rules in his nearly two-year relationship with Sonia Manhas, the county's health policy director. He confessed only after an anonymous email sent to county staffers outed the pair.

But the chair—especially after the release of hundreds of pages of calendars, emails, and travel and personnel records—still has plenty to explain. Emails show Manhas, well regarded for her work, clearly benefited professionally from her close relationship with Cogen. She also listed him as a reference when applying for her current job. They also traveled together, not explicitly for work, at least once on the county's dime.

Cogen, meanwhile, is now the subject of a county investigation and the four county commissioners he works alongside have called for an outside probe. And, worse yet, hours after Cogen resurfaced, the Oregonian posted an editorial demanding he step down. If you haven't been following the back-and-forth, here's a quick guide on what to look for.

THE BACKSTORY

After an email surfaced this month calling out Cogen and Manhas for canoodling in public—and implying that the relationship was the main reason Manhas won her current job—Cogen late Tuesday, July 16, brought in reporters from the Oregonian and Willamette Week and said the email was partially right.

Cogen—whose wife, Lisa Pellegrino, runs the Portland Children's Levy—said he did start a relationship with Manhas in mid 2011 but that it ended two months ago. He says it started when his father was dying—Manhas' father had recently passed. But he also said he never used his office improperly to advance her career. He also said, because he wasn't Manhas' direct supervisor, that he didn't violate county policy. Then he went into hiding and turned off his cell phone.

THE BIG FINDINGS

Media outlets, in the wake of Cogen's admission, began poring over—and tweeting and posting about—thousands of documents in a bid to shed light on Cogen's claims. Cogen, it seems, might have been fudging a few things.

Among the first things to emerge? According to personnel records, Manhas and Cogen were close enough that she felt it was okay to list him as a reference when applying for her policy job—a big promotion. They were deep in their relationship by then, and emails show she excitedly sent Cogen the job listing less than 30 minutes after it was posted. He replied with a smiley face.

Manhas' boss, Lillian Shirley, told the O that she was a big fan of Manhas' work. But it's hard to argue that Cogen's name on an application didn't hold extra weight. It's also hard to argue that county employees routinely list the official atop their government as a reference.

The two also emailed regularly about personal and professional issues. She repeatedly went around his staff—and her boss—with policy proposals. One exchange shows the two strategizing on how Manhas could trump her boss on a policy but make it look like Cogen's idea. They also discussed a plan to move Manhas directly into Cogen's office for two days a week. And in other exchanges, she beseeched him for $5,000 for a coal study that her office otherwise couldn't afford and tried to have meetings one-on-one, without some policy advisors.

Then, on Tuesday, July 23, Cogen admitted to taking an official trip to Atlanta this April where Manhas, on vacation, joined him. He used county money to check an unexpected second bag (for "his suits") and used county money on his room, which he insisted have a king-size bed.

THE LESSER FINDINGS

Cogen and Manhas did things that people secretly having sex with each other do. They had lunch, but didn't always put it on calendars. They made dates—including taking his kid to a Rush concert. They flirted over email—county email even! (Meh. Don't tell me you've never used work email to communicate with a significant other.)

THE FALLOUT

Manhas was known for her strong work on food policy and in fighting tobacco companies, pushing against youth smoking and for a tobacco tax. It's unclear if she'll be able to continue that high-profile work in light of Cogen's admission and the emails showing her circumventing her boss.

Cogen had spent the past few years rebuilding the county's finances, helped by a new library district, and was repairing its relationship with the city. But his colleagues on the county commission aren't happy with what's been leaking out, and city hall has been pointedly mum. His name also was whispered as a possibiility for higher office: a gubernatorial race for next year, a mayoral run in 2016. Some observers say he's toast even for the job he has. Each new dripping disclosure isn't helping.

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