Governor: Civil rights director should resign over comments

FILE - In this Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016 file photo, Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu, second right, speaks about a new service animal law in Lansing, Mich. Then Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, left, carries a patch that people with service animals will be able to obtain for free from the state to affix to their animal's vest. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019, that Arbulu should resign or be fired after he made inappropriate, offensive comments about women. (AP Photo/David Eggert, File)
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks with reporters after inspecting the Elm Street bridge over the Red Cedar River, Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Lansing, Mich. Whitmer says it is important that the public knows the seriousness of the state's "infrastructure crisis." (AP Photo/David Eggert)

LANSING, Mich. — Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that the state's civil rights director should resign or be fired after he made inappropriate, offensive comments about women.

Whitmer, who does not have the power to dismiss Agustin Arbulu, said she will no longer let him attend Cabinet meetings and will direct her administration to not directly engage him except to the extent required by law. The Civil Rights Commission on July 29 reprimanded Arbulu for a May 29 incident outside a suburban Detroit middle school but kept him on the job.

"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 in a letter to the panel. She said Arbulu, by his actions and his response to an investigation of his statements, "has compromised that mission and lacks the credibility his position demands."

The Associated Press left a message seeking comment from Arbulu on Wednesday.

A male communications analyst for the agency reported that Arbulu, 69, told him "would you look at that woman" and to "check out" her butt, and continued to make comments about her appearance during a break from the panel's listening session on the planned reconfiguration of the Grosse Pointe Public Schools System. The staffer, who is gay, said he told Arbulu the statements were not OK and Arbulu responded that "he would not understand because he did not like women."

In a July 16 memo, an investigator reviewing the incident said Arbulu told her if he did make inappropriate comments, he was referring to his adult daughter. He also told her that he saw his daughter at a subsequent listening session and "she looked hot."

Alma Wheeler Smith, the Civil Rights Commission's Democratic chairwoman, has defended the decision to keep Arbulu in his position.

"Commissioners are reviewing the Governor's letter and will consider how best to respond to her concerns," she said in a statement.

In a letter to the Democratic governor on Monday, Wheeler Smith said the harassment complaint against him "was not actionable" and deemed it an isolated incident, noting that the employee who complained felt the issue was resolved. Arbulu was apologetic and thoughtful in a follow-up phone call a day after the incident, according to the staffer.

The commissioners, Wheeler Smith said, chose a "restorative justice discipline model" to redress the victims and reintegrate Arbulu into the department.

About two dozen lawmakers, all Democrats, in the 148-member Republican-led Legislature have called on Arbulu to resign, while the president of the NAACP's Detroit branch has urged Whitmer to take the department in a "new direction." A leader of Latin Americans for Social and Economic Development, a Detroit-based nonprofit serving Hispanics, countered this week that Arbulu — a Peruvian immigrant — has been subject to a "total public political lynching" and applauded the panel for providing a corrective plan for his "singular verbal indiscretion."

The commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, and the agency investigate discrimination complaints. The eight-member commission can have no more than four members of the same political party. Arbulu, a Republican, was appointed to the commission in 2013 by then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. The panel named him to lead the department in 2015.

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Follow Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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