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The Biggest Lessons from the Cogen Probe

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JEFF COGEN, the former Multnomah County chair exiled from office this summer after admitting a long affair with another county employee, finally received a shred of good news last Friday, November 8.

The Oregon Department of Justice announced it wouldn't be filing criminal charges against Cogen—saying it couldn't prove he improperly used his powers to advance the career of his former lover, Sonia Manhas, or that he ever wrongly used government money to tryst with her during out-of-town trips.

But even that announcement was still a mixed blessing. The justice department managed to wrap its official answers in a publicly released 106-page tabloid-style tell-all—sourced mostly by Manhas and her attorney—that aired several sordid tales of his personal life: his sex life, his casual drug use, and his penchant for partying with old friends.

Unsurprisingly, there was a lot to chew over. What follows are some of the biggest points worth noting.

COGEN'S STEALTH POT SMOKING: Cogen, before his scandal, had long been a darling of the local progressive political set. He was seen as a mensch: earnest and thoughtful and energetically devoted to subjects like public health and sound budgeting.

A lot of people watched him in 2011 to see whether he might run for mayor and they kept watching his dealings with Charlie Hales this year as a sign of whether he might be plotting a run in 2016. A few people even whispered Cogen as a potential gubernatorial candidate if John Kitzhaber had decided early on not to fight for a fourth term.

One thing never mentioned? That Cogen—according to several people who spoke with investigators—was a dedicated pot smoker. He also, according to Manhas, went in for ecstasy and cocaine when old friends were in town. He had "two personas," the report says. (Cogen, when asked about the report's findings last week, declined to comment.)

Here's what that means: A regular dope-smoker was so good at his very public and very demanding job that none of us could tell the difference. After all, pot is much like beer or vodka—it can be used responsibly. In fact, Cogen was a guy many people wanted to see more of. (For what it's worth, Hales has also admitted to trying pot. We asked him last fall.)

Roy Kaufmann, a spokesman for former Mayor Sam Adams who's since spent time working for marijuana legalization campaigns, suggests the "cannabis closet" in Oregon political circles is deep and large.

"Even people whom I worked with closely, who I later learned were regular, casual users, they were very guarded about it," he says.

Kaufmann agrees Cogen's previous success could be seen as chipping away at that stigma.

"The sanctimoniousness is what's bothersome," he says. "There needs to be a massive exodus among white-collar professionals. We know when someone goes out for a few beers with a coworker, we don't assume they're an alcoholic."

MORE DOUBLE STANDARDS: It was clear early on in the Cogen investigation, according to the report, that he likely would not face any sanction over his professional conduct, even though Manhas was made to quit her health department job.

The county could not fire Cogen—although he did step down (once it was clear no one wanted him there) after getting a job offer at a friend's signature-gathering firm—and the state would not charge him.

The report lays that out when summarizing its interviews with County Attorney Jenny Madkour. Elected officials, she told investigators, aren't held to the same ethical and personnel rules as regular county staffers.

Two of Cogen's decisions (first publicly raised by the Mercury) were scrutinized: (1) Paying extra to upgrade a hotel room during an Atlanta trip where Manhas, using personal money, joined him, and (2) taking an earlier flight home, at additional county expense, so he could leave for Portland at the same time as Manhas. Both seem dodgy. But both are acceptable, officials say, because the policy gives officials sufficient leeway in booking their own accommodations, and elected officials are allowed to approve their own travel expenses.

Also of note? Madkour said those rules aren't often applied to elected officials' staffers.

BEWARE DISGRUNTLED EMPLOYEES: Turns out "Margie Smith" the tipster who dropped the dime on the affair, was a former health department employee named David Hudson. Hudson worked under Manhas in the county's Healthy Active Schools program. And he named himself in the infamous anonymous email that led to Cogen's political demise.

Hudson was not the first person to either know about or suspect Cogen's relationship with Manhas. But he was the first person willing to burn the chair and Manhas with that knowledge.

The sour feelings were born after an event at the Kennedy School, for which Hudson had scheduled a keynote speaker. Two weeks before, Manhas expressed concerns, in part because the speaker was a man and not a person of color—and then replaced him with... Cogen.

Hudson later left the county "because he was unhappy." Then, over the summer, when he found out about the affair from other ex-colleagues also complaining about low morale and troubles under Manhas' leadership, he decided to go public.

The report says, "He said he never dreamed it would go to the media and become as big a deal as it has."

He was wrong. Very wrong.

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