Commission ousts civil rights director after remarks about women

Augustin Arbulu

Detroit — The Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted Tuesday night to remove Agustin Arbulu as director of the Department of Civil Rights in the face of claims that he made remarks objectifying women.

The commission's 5-2 vote came after the panel spent more than an hour in closed session and followed its release of an Attorney General's Office opinion that said the alleged comments did not amount to "severe" harassment and did not expose the department to legal liability. 

Board chair Alma Wheeler Smith said members discussed a leave of absence that Arbulu began last week and the legal opinion during the closed session. After members returned to open session, Smith said she would entertain a motion to dismiss the director, which was made by commissioner Regina Gasco-Bentley.

Commission co-chair Laura Reyes Kopack and member Jeffrey Sakwa voted against Arbulu’s termination.

Arbulu was accused of making comments about women in May to a male employee that included a remark to check out a woman's "ass." He was also accused of bringing up the sexual orientation of the male staffer who objected to his comments, saying he wouldn’t understand because he didn’t “like women.”

During discussion before the vote, Smith said the motion for removal was “not something we take lightly.” 

“This is a very difficult decision for everyone on the commission,” Smith said. “The director was a very good director when he was present. He had a good work ethic ... I think the commission’s earlier decision to retain him with coaching and corrective action is a bad decision.”

Smith said the commission had no choice but to terminate because “we have to move forward.”

“It was well thought-out, but we have reached a point where circumstances beyond the commission have made it impossible for him to do an effective job for the commission and the department,” she said. 

Commissioner Rasha Demashkieh agreed, saying the situation is unfortunate, but “we have to think of the future of the department and the commission.”

Vice Chair Stacie Clayton said: “For me, it’s about the effectiveness of being the director, whoever he or she may be, to serve and represent the department and the state of Michigan.”

Neither Sakwa nor Kopack said anything before the vote. Afterward, Kopack declined to comment; Sakwa left immediately after the meeting.

LLEAD (Latino Leaders for the Enhancement of Advocacy and Development) Michigan board member Diana Rivera, left, of Okemos, addresses the board as Dr. Jose Cuello, right, listens. Cuello is a Wayne State University Associate Professor at the Center for Latino Studies. Both support the board's earlier unanimous decision to retain director Agustin V. Arbulu.

The department’s deputy director, Mary Engelman, has been serving as acting director since Arbulu went on leave a week ago. Earlier in Tuesday's meeting, the commission voted to boost her pay from $142,000 to $159,000 a year, matching what Arbulu had been paid. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and more than two dozen Democratic legislators had called for Arbulu’s firing or resignation.

The allegations "do not amount to 'severe or pervasive' sexually harassing conduct," according to the legal guidance memo by Assistant Attorney General Jeanmarie Miller that was written to Smith, a Democrat.

"The conduct pales in comparison to that alleged in cases" described in the memo "wherein the allegations included explicit sexual conversation and even the touching of private body parts and still the courts held that the conduct either lacked the severity or were insufficiently pervasive to sustain a hostile environment claim."

The legal opinion was released after a motion by commissioner Kopack, a Republican. The panel voted unanimously to waive attorney-client privilege.

The ouster came after about a dozen people spoke in favor of keeping Arbulu, who is of Peruvian descent. No one spoke in favor of firing him.

Arbulu has committed himself to civil rights, said Jose Cuello, an associate professor at Wayne State University.

“Reinstate him as soon as possible and let’s get back to work…” Cuello said. “If he is removed, the chances are that someone who is not committed to the nonpartisan commission may assume the directorship of this agency and then you’d be setting yourself back…”

Diana Rivera, a board member for nonprofit Latino Leaders for the Enhancement of Advocacy and Development, also backed Arbulu.  

“Our board is in full support to retain Dr. Arbulu as the executive director,” she said. “We support your decision as having been fair and just as well as the plan to work with Dr. Arbulu to correct his evidently unsound comments.”

Members of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC), from left, Mary L. Engelman, Regina Gasko-Bentley and Pastor Ira Combs, Jr., listen during the public comment portion of a meeting in Detroit Tuesday.

Attorney General Dana Nessel has not weighed in on the controversy but has said the commission's power to fire Arbulu is not limited to "the particular employment offense" that an assistant attorney general from her office reviewed.

"The director is an unclassified employee who serves at the pleasure of the commission," Nessel said two weeks ago.

In the memo, Miller told the commission would have to decide whether "the conduct alleged may violate the standards of conduct that MDCR sets for its Director."

Arbulu called his remarks "unacceptable and regrettable," but said he intended "to use this experience as a learning opportunity, to help me become a better person and a better leader.”

Department records indicate that Arbulu, during a break in a May listening session in Grosse Pointe, 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 has defended her father and his work with the Department of Civil Rights to address "systemic racism" in relation to the Flint water crisis and the planned closure of a mostly 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."

The director was appointed in 2015 by commissioners selected by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder.