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Lansing —  Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu should resign or commissioners should immediately fire him, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday, vowing to marginalize him if he stays on.

The East Lansing Democrat joined calls for Arbulu to step down in a letter to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which has sole authority to fire the director but last month instead chose to reprimand him for alleged comments objectifying women.

“The single-most important consideration in my decision is the director’s ability to lead the Michigan Department of Civil Rights moving forward,” Whitmer wrote.

“The department has a critical mission: to prevent discrimination and to investigate and resolve discrimination complaints…. By his actions, and his response to the ensuing investigation, I believe the director has compromised that mission and lacks the credibility the position demands.”

Whitmer does not have the power to fire Arbulu but told the commission that if he stays, she will bar him from Cabinet meetings "because of his unacceptable and admitted conduct." In addition, the governor said she has directed her administration not to directly engage Arbulu beyond any extent required by law.

Arbulu declined immediate comment Wednesday, saying he had not yet had a chance to review the governor's letter that was directed to commission members.

Chair Alma Wheeler Smith said in a statement that commissioners "are reviewing the governor’s letter and will consider how best to respond to her concerns.” 

More than two dozen state lawmakers have called on Arbulu to resign since the Civil Rights Commission reprimanded him for alleged comments to a male staffer objectifying women, including “check out her 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.”

A prominent Detroit Latino community leader on Tuesday spoke out in defense of Arbulu and against what she called “a total public political lynching."

Latino leader decries 'lynching'

Jane Garcia, vice chair of Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, praised the commission’s “commendable” decision to retain Arbulu and provide a plan to correct what she called a “singular verbal indiscretion.”

“Outrageous allegations and innuendo” have overshadowed the decision, Garcia said in an open letter to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission.

She urged commissioners to release a legal memo from an assistant in Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office that may shed more light on their decision to reprimand rather than fire Arbulu.

“On advice of counsel, the sexual harassment complaint before us was not actionable,” Wheeler Smith told Whitmer in a Monday letter. 

Commissioners are meeting Aug. 27 and will consider whether to waive attorney-client privilege on the memo.

Releasing the memo would “support the commission’s decision to get back to work to focus on real issues that impact the civil rights of all Michiganders,” Garcia said. “What is happening to Dr. Arbulu is unfair. Do the right thing. Release the Attorney General’s opinion immediately.”

Nessel has not weighed in on the controversy but said Wednesday 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," she said in a statement. 

Nessel also said Whitmer's power to request information about the commission's decision is "broad and is in no way limited by the Open Meetings Act."

Wheeler Smith on Monday declined to provide Whitmer with a description of commissioner conversations during the closed-door meeting in which they decided to reprimand Arbulu, citing an Open Meetings Act exemption. 

Conduct in question

Arbulu had told an investigator looking into his alleged comments about women that he was hoping to see his adult daughter at a late May listening session at a Grosse Pointe middle school and may have made “macho type comments” because he was disappointed she did not arrive.

Arbulu, a Peruvian immigrant who speaks English fluently as a second language, recalled his daughter did attend a subsequent June 4 listening session and “looked hot,” a comment the investigator also called inappropriate. 

Sarah Arbulu has defended her father’s record as leader of the state Civil Rights Department, including his work to expose “systemic racism” that precipitated the Flint water contamination crisis and his fight against Grosse Pointe’s plan to close a predominately African American school.

Whitmer had questioned why commissioners did not fire Arbulu and told them Wednesday she hopes they reconsider.  She noted that Daniel Levy, director of law and policy for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, has taken a leave of absence because he feels he can no longer work under Arbulu. 

At least 25 lawmakers — all Democrats — have called for the director's resignation over the past two weeks.

“Not only did Mr. Arbulu objectify a woman, he also insulted a gentleman for not condoning his base behavior,” state Rep. Leslie Love, D-Detroit, said Wednesday. “The hypocrisy of the director of the Department of Civil Rights making such lewd comments is reprehensible.”

If Arbulu does not resign and maintains a role in the department, Love suggested the commission should not allow him to remain as director, require him to submit a written apology to the public, host four community conversations and take training classes that focus on sexual harassment prevention and awareness.

Commission holds power

The eight-member Michigan Civil Rights Commission was created by the state Constitution to protect against discrimination and investigate alleged bias based on race, religion, color and other factors.

All current members were appointed by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder. Wheeler Smith, who chairs the commission, is a former state lawmaker and the lone Democrat on the panel, which includes four Republicans and three political independents.

The terms of Wheeler Smith and independent Rasha Demashkieh of Fort Gratiot expire at the end of the year.

The commission has sole authority to hire or fire a director for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Arbulu served on the commission for more than two years before colleagues voted to promote him in October 2015.

State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, said Tuesday that Arbulu’s “disturbing comments and actions have demonstrated he does not recognize the enormous responsibility his position holds to protect Michiganders in these increasingly divisive times.”

But state Rep. Isaac Robinson, D-Detroit, offered a more cautious approach and said Wednesday he supports Garcia’s request for the commission to release the attorney general’s opinion.

“We must keep partisan politics away from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission,” Robinson said. “As a supporter of civil liberties and due process, I see this mounting outside political pressure from the Legislature as overreach and unfair.” 

Arbulu has called his comments a "mistake" and "regrettable," vowing to continue to strive towards equity at the Department of Civil Rights.

joosting@detroitnews.com

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