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  • 30 Sep 2014

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Our Opinion: Cogen leaves stain on our moral center

In the investigative documents released Friday by the Oregon Department of Justice, former Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen comes across as a dope-smoking, pill-popping philanderer.

The report paints a picture of a man whose alleged personal recklessness was in distinct contrast to his public image of competency.

He also comes across as someone voters never would have elected to a position of such responsibility if they had known of his behavior. If there is anything worthwhile to learn from this tawdry situation, we hope it leads to better choices, not only by our elected leaders, but also by the people who put them into office.

The Department of Justice investigation did not support criminal charges against Cogen, but more than 100 pages of documents released from that probe should make everyone uneasy that he was leading a public agency with a $1.5 billion all-funds budget. Nonetheless, he fooled enough people to get elected to a seat on the board of county commissioners in 2006 and was elevated by his fellow commissioners to the chair position when it became vacant.

After winning his own election to the chair’s job in 2010, Cogen was viewed as a rising star among Portland politicians and as a potential successor to Mayor Sam Adams — another public figure dealing with his own set of ethical issues.

Little did the public know Cogen was walking a parallel path toward political destruction. His affair with county employee Sonia Manhas demonstrated terrible judgment, exposing the county to potential legal liability and himself to charges and rumors of favoritism. After the affair was outed by another county worker, Manhas spilled her guts to the state Department of Justice investigators, claiming that Cogen smoked marijuana regularly, had offered her the drug Ecstasy (she didn’t accept), had used cocaine, and even attended county functions in an altered state.

None of that hearsay evidence added up to criminal charges, and Cogen’s alleged misdeeds were small-time enough that they wouldn’t land him in jail in any case. The public, however, should be more concerned about finding leaders who aren’t only outwardly competent, but also personally conscientious.

Cogen is just the latest in a string of Oregon public officials who embarrassed themselves and their constituents with dreadful behavior. We believe our communities are entitled to better-quality leaders. This would include, at a minimum, people who understand it is wrong to use their positions to gain sexual favors, and people who are willing to comply with the same laws everyone else is required to follow.

Political candidates typically are chosen or endorsed based on the positions they take on specific issues. That’s a process mostly devoid of individual ethical considerations. We have to assume, however, that voters really do care about moral corruption. If they didn’t, why do they require so many of their leaders to resign once they’ve been exposed?

Of course, it can be difficult for ordinary voters to know whether their would-be leaders have a moral center. Yet, the issue of ethics ought to be part of every campaign.

It most certainly should weigh into the endorsement process for political action committees that represent union and business interests and often handpick the candidates who eventually go before voters. If the people choosing candidates have such poor taste, perhaps voters should be taking a closer look at the groups that support and provide funding to individual candidates.

In any case, the best leaders are those who exhibit self-restraint and personal responsibility. Voters and the groups that inform them should take greater care in the coming election year to avoid the Jeff Cogens of the political world and opt instead for candidates less likely to leave them feeling betrayed.

Multnomah County and its residents deserve much better than this.