Some time ago, I wrote a column relating to the indiscretions of former State Rep. Matt Wingard (R-Wilsonville). Mr. Wingard, who had quickly risen to a leadership position among House Republicans, had, according to The Oregonian, been accused by a former staffer of having “given her alcohol when she was underage, drugged her and kept her on his House payroll even after she stopped going to work because she could no longer stand the sight of him.” Mr. Wingard, a single man at the time, acknowledged the relationship but denied the allegations regarding drugs and alcohol. His accuser subsequently recanted her accusations about drugs and apologized for the assertion.
As a result of the allegations and the subsequent publicity, Mr. Wingard resigned his legislative leadership position and withdrew from his re-election campaign. While the drama unfolded, I wrote a column that stated in part:
“. . . I don’t know the facts surrounding the relationship between Mr. Wingard and his accuser. If her allegations about alcohol, drugs, and resulting sex are accurate, then Mr. Wingard should be arrested, tried and jailed. If her allegations about using his position as a legislator and employer are true, he should be sued and judgement should be rendered. In either instance he should be removed from office. If the allegations are true Mr. Wingard has violated the law and the public trust. If just his admission of a sexual relation with a staffer is true he has demonstrated that he is not smart enough to hold public office.”
I ran into Mr. Wingard shortly after that column was published and he complained that he had been treated unfairly and that he had lost everything – his leadership position, his seat in the legislature and his clients in his consulting business and thus his income. He argued that this was just sex between two consenting, unmarried adults. I told him that he still didn’t get it; that having sex with an employee whom you supervise directly or indirectly demonstrates a remarkable lack of intelligence and common sense. That lack of adult judgment was, in my opinion, a disqualifier for public office.
And the same is true for Multnomah County Commission chair, Jeffery Cogen (D-Portland). Mr. Cogen, who is married, admitted a one and one-half year affair with a Multnomah County staffer, Sonia Manhas. While Ms. Manhas did not report directly to Mr. Cogen, she did report to Ms. Lillian Shirley, who in turn reported directly to Mr. Cogen. Subsequent evidence indicated that Ms. Manhas routinely bypassed her supervisor to deal directly with Mr. Cogen. Ms. Manhas, after telling Mr. Cogen that she was interested in a promotion and then listing him as a reference for that promotion, received that promotion. In the aftermath of the disclosure of Mr. Cogen’s affair, Ms. Manhas was forced to resign – watch for the lawsuit and the large payment of taxpayer funds to be made to Ms. Manhas. In contrast, Mr. Cogen, as of the writing of this column has refused to resign and a criminal investigation has begun by the Oregon Attorney General.
Look, this isn’t just about sex or the private lives of public officials. This is about basic intelligence and common sense. There is a reason for the old admonition about not fishing off the company dock and it predates feminism and sexual harassment lawsuits. When that rule is violated, there is suspicion that the employee must submit to the boss, that the employee’s rewards are a result of sexual favors rather than demonstrable skills, and that the other employees are disadvantaged because of a preferential relationship. And, in the end, when the personal relationship ends, the business relationship continues clouded by all of the personal baggage of the relationship and its termination. All of that is true in the world of private business but it doubly so in the world of government service. It is the public’s business and the public’s funds that are subject to the capriciousness of affairs of the heart or other organs of the body.
Mr. Cogen’s conduct calls into question every element noted above. Mr. Cogen and Ms. Manhas began an affair. During that affair they traveled together, shared lodging together and ate together, all at the expense of the taxpayers. Because of the relationship it is impossible to know whether the trips were necessary for the conduct of the public’s business or an opportunity to engage in the affair. During that affair, Ms. Manhas routinely bypassed her supervisor to deal with Mr. Cogen and to exclude others from decision making. Because of the relationship it is impossible to know whether the decisions being made were in the public interest or simply in furtherance of the affair. During the affair, Ms. Manhas sought and received a promotion and used Mr. Cogen as a reference –thus implying his support. It is impossible to know whether Ms. Manhas was the best qualified for the promotion or it was in furtherance of the affair – you might want to ask that of the other unsuccessful candidates who did not provided sexual favors to Mr. Cogen. And at the termination of the affair, Ms. Manhas has now been forced to resign and the public is at risk for paying for her termination as a result of the affair. The public received no benefit from the affair – the benefits were exclusively those to Mr. Cogen and Ms. Manhas – but the public paid for the consequences of that affair.
Even Ms. Manhas recognizes that imbalance created by the affair and its aftermath. KGW quoted Ms. Manhas as saying:
“It’s time for Jeff to resign. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a man and a woman in the same situation to be held to a different standard. Both Jeff and I need to step aside so Multnomah County can get back to its important work on behalf of the community.”
It is pretty simple. If Mr. Cogen did not know the adverse impact of engaging in a sexual relationship with a subordinate, then he lacks the practical education necessary to serve in office. If Mr. Cogen was unaware of the impact of his sexual relationship, then he lacks the necessary cognizance to serve in office. If Mr. Cogen believed that the rules did not apply to him, then he lacks the moral acuity to serve in office. And if Mr. Cogen believes this is just about sex between private consenting adults then he lacks the judgment to serve in public office.
Similar inappropriate conduct by other public officials is neither an excuse nor a justification for Mr. Cogen’s actions. In the end, Mr. Cogen has demonstrated that he is not smart enough to hold public office. He should resign.