Civil rights director faces fallout for 'objectifying women'

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Agustin Arbulu

Lansing – Michigan Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu is facing the defection of a top department official and a high-profile call to resign following an internal reprimand for undisclosed comments he made "objectifying women.”

Daniel Levy, director of law and policy for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, informed Arbulu on Sunday that he can no longer work under him and is using annual leave time to contemplate his own future.

“I have been wrestling with this decision for some time and after taking the weekend to reread the statements you have provided in response to your initial offending comments, I find I have no other option,” Levy told Arbulu in a letter obtained by The Detroit News.

“I am simply not able to properly do my job under the present circumstances.”

The exact nature of Arbulu’s offensive comments remain unknown. They prompted the Department of Civil Rights to admonish – but not fire – Arbulu last week. The Detroit News has requested details about the investigation, but some information may be subject to attorney-client privilege, according to Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office.

Levy said Arbulu has described the offending comments as a “30-second indiscretion” but told the director he is unable to view them in isolation.

“I am too aware of other occasions where you have been cautioned,” he said. “Further, your continued use of a term you have been told others find objectionable, as recently as in your presentation to the Commission, shows little real understanding or attempt to change.”

The department did not immediately respond to questions about the Levy letter or a request for an interview with Arbulu.  

In a statement last week, the director said he “takes full responsibility” for his "unacceptable and regrettable" comments and intends to learn from the experience.

That did not satisfy House Minority Leader Christine Greig, a Farmington Hills Democrat who on Wednesday became the first state lawmaker to call on Arbulu to resign.

The department he oversees is tasked with ensuring civil rights protections for all Michigan residents — “free from discrimination” — and must have the “full confidence and trust of the public it serves,” Greig said in a statement.

“As a result of troubling comments made by MDCR Director Agustin Arbulu, by his own admission, he has lost Michiganders’ confidence and trust, and mine.”

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer does not have the authority to fire Arbulu but has questioned why the Civil Rights Commission did not do so. She also demanded a written summary of their findings and records from the closed-door session in which they decided to reprimand him. 

Whitmer said last Friday she had reviewed a memo summarizing the investigation showing that Arbulu likely made "inappropriate, offensive comments regarding women" to a department employee and made additional comments regarding that employee's sexual orientation. 

In his Aug. 4 letter, Levy said he decided to take a leave because of a subsequent statement Arbulu read the commission in response to the allegations against him. The specifics of that statement also remain unknown but Levy told Arbulu it could “irreparably” harm both of their credibility if it is made public.

“Not only does it show a continued failure to understand the problem, it has greatly compounded it,” Levy said of Arbulu’s statement to the commission.

“While you publicly proclaim that you accept responsibility, you took this occasion to attack and blame it on others. In short, I am unable to work for the person, or for a Department of Civil Rights that is under the leadership of the person who penned that message.”

In a Friday interview with Michigan Radio, Arbulu expressed regret for his comments but said he did not recall specific details about what he said.

“It was an offhanded comment referring to a woman’s appearance said to a male staffer in a private conversation,” Arbulu said, calling it an isolated incident.

“I feel terrible, it should not have happened, but it did, and I made a mistake. And I’ve learned from it.”