Civil Rights Commission votes to fire Arbulu

MDCR Executive Director Agustin Arbulu listens to Attorney General Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman
This was a breaking story. It was updated at 11:13 a.m. 8/28/19 with additional information.

By a vote of 5-to-2, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has voted to fire Augustin Arbulu, the embattled director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR). 

Arbulu*, who was appointed to the commission in 2013 by Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder before becoming director of the department, has been under fire all month since he was reprimanded for “inappropriate comments.” 

Commissioners Laura Reyes Kopack and Jeffrey Sakwa voted against terminating Arbulu and Commissioner Ira Combs-Jackson had to leave the meeting before the vote took place.*

Embattled Michigan civil rights chief takes indefinite leave

According to MDCR documents obtained by the Advance, Arbulu repeatedly made offensive comments to a colleague about women, such as, “Check out that ass.” He also told a state investigator that his adult daughter “looked hot” at a recent event they both attended.*

In an interview with the Advance earlier this month, Arbulu said his remark about his daughter was “regrettable” and he “has taken responsibility.”*

Arbulu: Sexist comments like calling daughter ‘hot’ were ‘regrettable’

However, pressure on Arbulu to resign had been mounting in recent weeks, particularly from Michigan Democrats, including from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Last week, he was placed on leave. The department director serves at the pleasure of the commission and the governor lacks the power to terminate the position. 

The decision to take up a vote to oust the director seemed to come suddenly, according to Detroit Free Press reporter Kathy Gray. 

Prior to the vote to remove Arbulu, the MDCR voted to release an opinion from late-July from the office of state Attorney General Dana Nessel, which determined that the allegations made about the director “do not amount to ‘severe or pervasive’ sexually harassing conduct.”

MCRC members Alma Wheeler Smith, Laura Reyes Kopack, and Ira Combs listen to Attorney General Dana Nessel during Feb. 1, 2019, meeting. | Ken Coleman

The attorney general’s opinion, however, determined that while the specifics of the allegations may not have been “actionable … we have not offered an opinion with regard to whether or not the conduct alleged may violate the standards of conduct that MDCR sets for its director. That is a question that must be answered by the Commission.”

Commissioners appear to feel they did that on Tuesday night. 

“This has been a challenging time for the Commission and the Department,” Commission Chair Alma Wheeler Smith said Tuesday night in a statement. “Now it is time for the Department to turn forward to the important work it was created to do – investigating and enforcing civil rights laws and helping the state of Michigan become a more equitable and inclusive place.”

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