Investigator: Civil rights director called own daughter ‘hot’

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Department of Civil Rights Executive Director Agustin Arbulu was standing outside a middle school when he allegedly made a series of comments to a male staffer that objectified women, including “check out her ass.”

Then Arbulu told an investigator looking into the remarks that his own adult daughter “looked hot.”

Documents obtained by The Detroit News through a public records request shed new light on accusations against Arbulu that prompted the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to reprimand the director for what had been undisclosed comments.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last week demanded commissioners explain why they did not fire Arbulu. A second state lawmaker on Friday called on Arbulu to resign, something the regretful director told The News he is not planning to do. 

Agustin Arbulu

Arbulu is accused of making offensive comments about women to a male aide outside a Department of Civil Rights listening session in late May at Pierce Middle School in Grosse Pointe Park, according to a memo summarizing a discriminatory harassment investigation.

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 made additional comments about Heywood’s sexual orientation, saying he wouldn’t understand because he didn’t “like women.”

Joanne Bridgford, equal employment opportunity administrator for the Michigan Department of Corrections, interviewed Arbulu as she investigated the incident.

Arbulu denied remembering the specific comments in question, according to a July 16 memo Bridgford produced, but explained he was waiting outside the school to look for his adult daughter, with whom he had had a “love/hate” relationship and had not seen for many years.

The daughter lived near the school and had texted him that she might drop by.

"Director Arbulu said he was excited about the possibility of seeing his daughter and then disappointed when she didn’t show up and he may have made the situation worse by making ‘macho type comments,'" according to the memo.

While he repeatedly denied remembering specific comments, Arbulu “did indicate that he would make sexual comments about his daughter,” Bridgford wrote.

“Director Arbulu did indicate to this investigator that his daughter did show up to the June 4th Listening Session at Grosse Pointe schools and that ‘she looked hot!’”

Arbulu: Comments a 'mistake'

In a Friday afternoon interview with The News, Arbulu called his comments a “mistake.” He did not deny commenting on his own daughter’s appearance while under investigation for inappropriate statements about women.

“It’s regrettable,” said Arbulu, who has been executive director for nearly four years after being a civil rights commissioner for more than two years. “I can’t change that. I am taking full responsibility, and I’m learning from that experience, specifically in my role as executive director and recognizing that words do matter. I am hopeful that all of us, including me, especially me, is seeking to learn and improve.”

Asked if he has plans to resign, Arbulu said he is focused on continuing his work at the department and respects the decision by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to reprimand him. He declined to comment on criticism from Whitmer, who has questioned why he was not fired.

Bridgford interviewed Heywood and other staff as part of her investigation before concluding “it is more likely than not” that 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.

“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,’” she wrote.

Arbulu responded to the findings in remarks to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission also obtained by The News through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In a written copy of the remarks, some of which were redacted to protect the privacy of a complainant, Arbulu explained that he never said anything to Heywood about his daughter, only that he had mentioned it to the investigator to “set the stage.”

“Just for clarity, my daughter has short white hair, is in her 40s and resides in Grosse Pointe,” he said.

Arbulu took exception to Heywood’s characterization that he had looked like “a stereotypical perverted old man” while waiting outside the middle school.

“That tells me he is bringing his own bias and history into a 30-second encounter while he was smoking a cigarette between hearings outside the school building,” Arbulu told commissioners. “I still apologized because he referenced being unable to sleep all night. This gave me a feeling he was on edge.”

Arbulu urged the commission to take no action against him, denying claims he had created an offensive work environment. He earned $152,250 in 2015.

Daniel Levy, director of law and policy for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, cited Arbulu's commission statement in a Sunday letter informing the director that he can no longer work under him and is taking leave time to contemplate his own future. 

“While you publicly proclaim that you accept responsibility, you took this occasion to attack and blame it on others," Levy told Arbulu. "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.”

Backlash grows

The documents released Friday by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights shed new light on the controversy. Commissioners announced last week they had decided in a closed-door session to reprimand Arbulu over comments objectifying women, but it was not known what he had allegedly said.

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. The commission, whose current members were appointed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, hired Arbulu in October 2015.

Whitmer does not have the power to fire Arbulu but last week requested an explanation from the civil rights commissioners why they did not. 

"We have not yet received a response from the commission, but we are eagerly waiting to receive the information requested in the letter from the governor," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Friday.

Michigan House Minority Leader Christine Greig, D-Farmington Hills, on Wednesday became the first state lawmaker to call on Arbulu to resign. Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr. joined her Friday, saying Arbulu should step down or be removed by the commission.

The East Lansing Democrat said he feels bad for Arbulu's  daughter and imagines the director has caused a “huge distraction” for the department.

“I think anyone that would objectify their own daughter in that way probably isn’t above doing it to someone else," Hertel said. "And I think most people would rather resign instead of admitting to this.”

State Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, on Friday criticized the commission for what she called a lack of transparency over the Arbulu inquiry. 

“If the Michigan Civil Rights Commission is going to give Arbulu a slap on the wrist and allow him to continue leading the department after what sounds like a serious offense, they owe the public a thorough explanation,” Whiteford said in a statement.

Bridgford, in the memo summarizing her investigation, did clear Arbulu of one allegation, saying there is no evidence to suggest he treats his female staff differently than male employees.

“It appears that Director Arbulu believes that if the comments he made were in context to his own daughter, they may not be offensive towards women,” she wrote.

“However, this investigator does not know of any circumstances where the comments attributed to Director Arbulu would be approved communication for the workplace even if the comments pertained to family members.”

Arbulu said Friday he is committed to improving himself as a person and in his role as director. He noted that the commission’s decision to reprimand him was unanimous and said he accepts their determination.

“I am focusing on the work of the department,” Arbulu said. “We have a lot, especially in the area of equity, which is very important that we work to achieve equity. And that’s a constant initiative that we have. We are not perfect, and equity is something that we strive for.”