Daughter stands by Michigan's civil rights director amid growing calls for resignation

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Agustin Arbulu

Lansing — The daughter of embattled Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu is standing by her father despite allegations he called her “hot” during an investigation finding he likely made other comments objectifying women.

And the Michigan Civil Rights Commission is standing by its decision not to fire him.

Sarah Arbulu, a 47-year-old paralegal from Grosse Pointe, told The Detroit News on Monday she hopes the public will not cast judgment on her father without considering his full body of work in the Department of Civil Rights, which he has headed since 2015.

“I think actions always speak louder than words,” she said.

“While I can’t speak to what happened to cause those allegations, because I was not present, I can say I fully support his positions on Flint, especially, and Grosse Pointe, because it's where I raise my children and have lived my whole life.”

Under Director Arbulu’s leadership, the Civil Rights Department explored the roots of the Flint water contamination crisis and in 2017 issued a report challenging the state to confront “systemic racism” that has produced disparate outcomes in minority communities.

The department this year urged the Grosse Pointe Public School District to reconsider plans to reconfigure the district and close a predominately African American school, citing a lack of transparency in a decision-making process Director Arbulu said “failed to adequately take into consideration issues of racial equality.”

Arbulu is facing growing pressure to resign in the wake of his alleged comments that prompted a reprimand from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission. At least 22 state lawmakers have called on him to step down, including 20 on Monday, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has questioned why the commission did not fire him.

The director is accused of making offensive comments about women to a male aide in late May outside a listening session at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park.

Communications analyst Todd Heywood alleged Arbulu said things such as “would you look at that woman” and “check out her ass.” When Heywood confronted him, Arbulu allegedly brought up Heywood’s sexual orientation, saying he wouldn’t understand because he didn’t “like women.”

Arbulu told an investigator he was hoping to see his daughter at the event and may have made “macho type comments” because he was disappointed she did not arrive. He recalled she did attend a subsequent June 4 listening session and “looked hot,” a comment the investigator also called inappropriate.

Arbulu is a Peruvian immigrant who speaks English fluently as a second language, and his daughter suggested there are significant cultural differences between what is considered acceptable that may have affected the way her father’s comments were delivered or received.

That said, “hot” is not a term that is regularly used in the Latino community, Sarah Arbulu said.

“I think that sometimes he, along with everybody, uses words they are comfortable using and have been accustomed to using, and others might not get it or understand the context of it,” she said. “It could have offended someone, but I don’t think it was meant to offend anybody.”

Commission defends decision

In a Monday letter to Whitmer, Chair Alma Wheeler Smith told the governor the Michigan Civil Rights Commission was “more troubled than you” by the investigative report but elected to pursue a “restorative justice discipline model” to reintegrate Arbulu into the department rather than fire him.

“If that doesn’t work to the commission’s satisfaction, the commission can take other action,” said Wheeler Smith, a former state lawmaker.  

Wheeler Smith and the commission declined the governor’s request for a written copy of any transcripts or audio recordings of the closed-door meeting in which the commission decided to reprimand Arbulu, saying the records do not exist but would be privileged under law.

“There were no other complaints in the director’s personnel file which suggested this was an isolated incident,” she told Whitmer. “However, the director’s efforts to minimize his actions and deflect his own personal responsibility for them to others were of serious concern.”

Sarah Arbulu declined to discuss the political reaction to her father’s alleged comments but said she is “passionate” about civil rights and frustrated the controversy has distracted from important conversations about inclusion and cultural awareness.

The Grosse Pointe school board in June voted to close two local elementary schools, including Poupard, which predominately serves African American students and is the district’s only Title 1 school.

Director Arbulu had urged the board to delay action, suggesting the need for a “racially conscious approach” that was inclusive, fair and transparent. 

Sarah Arbulu, who has two children in the district and a third who recently graduated, said she agreed with her father’s conclusions but did not play a role in his decision making.

Similarly, she said he did not urge her to defend him in the media.

“I am not the story,” Sarah Arbulu said. “The story should really be about the work the department has done or is doing. And that’s not just my father… I wish that was the focus, and I’m sorry things have been said that distracted from the real work of the department.”

Joanne Bridgford, equal employment opportunity administrator for the Michigan Department of Corrections, investigated the Grosse Pointe incident and concluded “it is more likely than not” Director Arbulu made inappropriate and offensive comments to Heywood in violation of work rules.

And it is “more likely than not” he also made comments about Heywood’s sexual orientation, she wrote in a July 16 summary memo.

“To add to this, Director Arbulu did make inappropriate comments to this investigator when he indicated that he did eventually see his daughter at a subsequent listening session and that ‘she looked hot.’”

In a Friday afternoon interview with The News, a regretful Arbulu called his comments a “mistake” and vowed to learn from the experience.

Resignation demands grow

But a slew of Democrats on Monday called on the civil rights director to resign, including Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich of Flint and the Progressive Women's Caucus executive committee.

They joined previous calls from House Minority Leader Christine Greig of Farmington Hills and Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. of East Lansing.

"This behavior cannot be tolerated," said a statement from Progressive Women's Caucus Reps. Kristy Pagan of Canton, Kyra Bolden of Southfield, Mari Manoogian of Birmingham, Rachel Hood of Grand Rapids and Sen. Stephanie Chang of Detroit.

"Dr. Arbulu’s inappropriate and demeaning comments toward women, including comments about the physical appearance of his own daughter, and his behavior as the Department’s head, shows he has a complete disregard for the responsibility and weight that his position should carry."

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 2015 hired Arbulu to lead the department after he served more than two years on the commission. As of 2017, he earned a $152,250 salary and that year turned down a bonus the commission had approved in a controversial closed-door vote.

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.