Whitmer boots civil rights chief from cabinet meetings, urges him to resign

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Zeeland | Nick Manes

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer sent a letter to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) on Wednesday urging its director, Agustin Arbulu, to resign and saying she would disallow him from future cabinet meetings if he remains in office.

Agustin Arbulu
Agustin Arbulu | Michigan Department of Civil Rights, Facebook

Her call comes just days after the details of Arbulu’s alleged offensive and sexist comments to a colleague were made public through a Freedom of Information Act request. Arbulu allegedly made comments like “check out that ass” and remarked on his coworker’s sexual orientation, both of which led to a reprimand from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) earlier this month.

“I am now of the opinion that Director Arbulu should resign and, if he refuses, the Commission should immediately dismiss him,” Whitmer wrote. The director of the MDCR, although serving in the governor’s cabinet, is appointed by the MCRC, not the governor’s office.

“I hold the members of my cabinet to the highest standard … given Director Arbulu’s unacceptable and admitted conduct, I will no longer allow him to participate in meetings of my cabinet,” Whitmer wrote, adding “Moreover, I am directing my administration to not directly engage the director except to the extent required by law.”

In recent days more than 20 state lawmakers have called for Arbulu’s resignation, including state House Minority Leader Christine Grieg (D-Farmington Hills) and the executive committee of the Progressive Women’s Caucus. 

State Rep. Sheryl Kennedy (D-Davison) said, “Director Arbulu’s comments and actions have proven that he is unfit to fulfill the duties of his office. The Commission took the first step with the reprimand, but this is not enough.”

Alma Wheeler Smith
Alma Wheeler Smith

In a letter dated Monday, to which Whitmer responded Wednesday, MCRC Chair Alma Wheeler Smith addressed the governor’s previously voiced concerns about Arbulu but defended its decision to not fire him.

“The commission elected to try a restorative justice discipline model which is precisely in line with the department’s mission,” Smith wrote. 

“Director Arbulu’s immediate actions caused harm. … To repair that harm, we require the director to take responsibility for his actions and we create a pathway that we believe would redress the victims of his action and reintegrate him into the department as a more complete and understanding leader.”

In a statement, Attorney General Dana Nessel attempted to clarify what she called “confusion” surrounding the situation, including that “the suggestion that the Commission’s power to terminate the employment of Director Arbulu is limited to the particular employment offense at issue in the July 19, 2019 investigate [sic] report is wrong. The director is an unclassified employee who serves at the pleasure of the commission.”

Speaking to the Advance last week, Arbulu said, “I have taken responsibility, and [I’m] learning from that experience, specifically in my role as executive director, and recognizing that words do matter.”

In a statement Wednesday, Smith said, “Commissioners are reviewing the Governor’s letter and will consider how best to respond to her concerns.”

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson is a former reporter for the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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