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Our Opinion: Credibility, not consent

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen has resorted to the “two consenting adults” line of defense as he fights to hold onto his job following his admission of an affair with a county employee.

It’s true that Cogen and the employee are both adults capable of making their own romantic decisions, but there is a fundamental conflict that emerges whenever the person in charge of an organization engages in a relationship with any employee.

Evidence of that conflict already is apparent in the Cogen affair. An email circulating among county workers alleges that the employee — Sonia Manhas — received a promotion because of her relationship with Cogen. True or not, the accusation demonstrates that Cogen’s actions have undermined the credibility of the county’s personnel procedures.

When Cogen entered into this relationship, he should have known this path was fraught with peril, not only for his family life, but also his professional future. If Manhas had not received a promotion within the county’s Health Department, the question arising now might be whether she was passed over due to her relationship with Cogen. Further, if such a relationship turned sour, Cogen could very well be exposed to accusations of sexual harassment.

Cogen is just the latest public figure to prove that smart people do very stupid things. His fellow county commissioners, however, cannot just allow this episode to be excused with a tearful apology and a vow to behave in he future.

At the very least, county commissioners must demand an independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding Manhas’ promotion to determine if any favoritism entered into the process. They also should insist that the results of this investigation be revealed to the public. For it will be the people of Multnomah County — not Jeff Cogen — who ultimately should decide whether he ought to remain in office.