Accused civil rights director set to take leave of absence

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu is taking a leave of absence after claims he objectified women led to a formal reprimand and calls for his resignation.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and more than two dozen state lawmakers have called for Arbulu’s resignation since the Civil Rights Commission reprimanded him for alleged comments to a male staffer objectifying women and making comments about the staff member's sexual orientation.

Agustin Arbulu

In a press release announcing Arbulu's leave, the department did not indicate a reason for his departure or the duration of his leave. The Human Resources section of the Civil Rights Department is not releasing details about the leave, a spokeswoman said.

Arbulu did not answer calls seeking comment.

The department’s deputy director, Mary Engelman, has been asked to serve as acting director in Arbulu’s absence.

Engleman has led the Michigan Women’s Commission since her appointment by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016 and assumed the duties of deputy director in 2018.

“I’m confident Mary will do an exemplary job of leading the department and guiding our efforts to refocus on the many civil rights challenges that face us,” Civil Rights Commission Chairwoman Alma Wheeler Smith said in a statement. 

Commissioners are scheduled to meet Tuesday in Detroit to decide whether to waive attorney-client privilege and release a legal memo from Attorney General Dana Nessel's office that may detail some of the reasons the commission decided to reprimand Arbulu. 

Whitmer last week called for Arbulu's resignation or firing, and vowed to bar him from cabinet meetings if he stayed on as director. 

During a break in a May listening session in Grosse Pointe, Arbulu allegedly made comments to a male employee about women, including "check out her ass." When the employee objected to Arbulu's comments, the director said the employee wouldn't understand because he didn't "like women."

Arbulu later told an investigator he made the "macho type comments" because he was disappointed his daughter did not show up at the meeting. He told the investigator his daughter attended a later June listening session and "looked hot."

Sarah Arbulu defended her father, noting his work in addressing "systemic racism" in relation to the Flint water crisis and the planned closure of a predominantly African-American Grosse Pointe school.  

He also was defended by Jane Garcia, vice chair of Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, who said the commission's decision to reprimand Arbulu had been plagued with "outrageous allegations and innuendo."