Commission still hasn't drafted formal reprimand for civil rights director

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Nearly a month has passed since the Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted to reprimand Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu for comments he made objectifying women, but documentation of the action has yet to be placed in Arbulu's personnel file. 

The commission still has to draft the reprimand and vote on it, said spokeswoman Vicki Levengood, replying to inquiries from The Detroit News about the document's absence from Arbulu's file.


"The commission voted to place a reprimand in his file at the special meeting,"  Levengood said in an email. "But they had not drafted it at that point. The commission will want to review and approve the exact language of the reprimand."

The commission's decision was made after a lengthy closed-door session during a July 29 special meeting and has been criticized by many, including Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who argued the panel should have fired Arbulu.

Arbulu took a leave of absence from the department last week, even as the commission stood by its decision to reprimand the director and require him to undergo training and mentorship. He will continue receiving pay and benefits while using leave time he has accrued, Levengood said. He's accumulated 685 annual and sick leave hours during his years with the department, a little more than 17 weeks of paid leave.

The commission board is poised to vote Tuesday to release a legal memo from the Attorney General’s office that they say provided guidance for their decision. It's not clear whether the commission will also vote on the official reprimand during the meeting.

Arbulu’s more than 60-page personnel file, obtained by The Detroit News through a Freedom of Information Act request, contained reference to 50-year-old arrest records for Arbulu that had been included as part of the department’s initial background check in 2015. But the location, reason and disposition of the arrests were all redacted.

When the News inquired about the redaction, the department treated the inquiry as an appeal and issued the unredacted records. Initially, the information was redacted because revealing the old arrests was considered "a clearly unwarranted invasion of Director Arbulu's privacy," said the department's acting director, Mary Engelman. 

"I have determined that while the relevance of 50-year-old misdemeanor convictions unrelated to present events does constitute an invasion of privacy, due to the fact that they may be obtained in any event and the nature of the office of the director, we are not in a position to contend that any such invasion is legally unwarranted," Engelman said in a Monday letter.

The arrests, also contained in Michigan State Police records, occurred in 1968 and 1970 for misdemeanor larceny under $100 in Marquette County and misdemeanor  disorderly conduct in East Lansing. Arbulu would have been 18 and 20 at the times of the incidents.

Arbulu did not reply to a call or text message from The News seeking comment. 

State public records laws allow government agencies to exempt some personal information found in arrest records — such as driver's license numbers, addresses or witness names — "but certainly not the entire record," said Robin Luce Herrmann, a Bloomfield Hills attorney who is general counsel for the Michigan Press Association. 

Even where exemptions are allowed, they're largely discretionary, not mandatory, she said. 

"You would think that understanding the amount of public interest in this, there would have been a discussion early on" about the redaction of that information, Luce Herrmann said. 

Arbulu was appointed to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 2013 by then-Gov. Rick Snyder and was appointed director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights by the board in 2015.  

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."

Whitmer has called for Arbulu’s resignation or firing and said she would bar him from cabinet meetings if he stayed on as director. She also demanded the commission explain its decision to reprimand Arbulu.

The commission also came under scrutiny about Arbulu in 2017, when the board voted to give him a 16.25% bonus during a closed-door vote, a likely violation of the Michigan Open Meeting Act. The commission said it had inadvertently voted on the bonus during a closed-door session.  

Arbulu later rejected the $24,740 bonus.

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