Whitmer demands explanation why reprimanded civil rights director wasn't fired

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Agustin Arbulu

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has directed the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to explain in writing why it didn't fire Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu for making comments that created "an offensive work environment."  

In a letter Friday afternoon, Whitmer demanded a written summary of the commission’s reasoning as well as copies of any written transcripts or recordings of the closed session where the commission decided to reprimand Arbulu. She gave them a deadline of Aug. 12 to provide the information.

The commission announced Thursday night that Arbulu had been reprimanded for undisclosed comments "objectifying women."

The notice from the commission came a few days after a special meeting Monday in Detroit, where the commission held a "lengthy closed session" regarding the incident, which had been detailed in an initial May complaint, according to the commission. 

The director's conduct was determined not to have violated law, but "fell short of the conduct" expected of the director, commission chairwoman Alma Wheeler Smith said in the statement. 

"The commission has determined that a formal reprimand will be placed in the director’s file, that he shall submit to a training and mentorship program to be approved by the chair and completed before the end of the year, and during that training period the director shall not conduct internal or external training sessions for other public or private entities," Wheeler said. 

In her letter Friday, Whitmer said she had reviewed a memo summarizing the investigation as well as Arbulu's response to it. She included a segment of the report that found Arbulu "more likely than not" made "inappropriate, offensive comments regarding women" to a department employee and made additional comments regarding that employee's sexual orientation. 

The comments, according to the investigative report excerpt, interfered with the employee's work and "created an offensive work environment for him."

Arbulu later made further sexist comments to the investigator reviewing the complaint and attempted to discredit the complainant, noting "all of us comes to the workplace with history and bias," Whitmer wrote in her letter. 

Whitmer said she had "serious concerns" about the commission's decision and Arbulu's ability to continue leading the department. 

"The findings in this report about the director's actions runs headlong against the very mission of the department," she wrote. 

Arbulu's department falls under the purview of the commission and is tasked with reviewing and solving discrimination complaints as well as educating people and businesses on civil rights laws. 

The commission's eight-member board consists of members appointed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. 

The state constitution gives the governor's office the authority to require information related to an office's duties from "all executive and administrative state officers," whether they are elected or appointed, she wrote in her letter.

"Consistent with these powers, please provide me a written and detailed explanation of why the commission has chosen to retain Director Arbulu as director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights despite the matters summarized in this letter, including the conclusion of an independent investigator that the director more likely than not created 'an offensive work environment' for a department employee," Whitmer wrote. 

Arbulu did not respond to a phone call seeking comment Friday, but in a statement provided through the commission's press release he said his recent comments were "unacceptable and regrettable."

"I agree with their assessment, and I take full responsibility," Arbulu said of the commission's conclusions. "I am deeply sorry and will not allow it to happen again. While I cannot change the past, I intend to use this experience as a learning opportunity, to help me become a better person and a better leader.”


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