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

By: - August 9, 2019 5:36 pm

MDCR Executive Director Agustin Arbulu listens to Attorney General Dana Nessel | Ken Coleman

Documents released by the Michigan Department of Civil Rights (MDCR) Friday detail sexist comments that MDCR Director Agustin Arbulu made to a coworker, as well as remarks to state investigator that his adult daughter “looked hot” at a recent event they both attended.

Speaking to the Advance Friday, Arbulu said his comment about his daughter was “regrettable.”

“I can’t change that,” 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.”

The state’s civil rights director was officially reprimanded last week for inappropriate comments to a coworker that were not public knowledge until the Detroit News first obtained them through a Freedom of Information Act request Friday.

When asked about the comments, Arbulu said he “represented his understanding and recollection of the events to the [Michigan Civil Rights] Commission,” and noted that the session was closed and its details remain confidential.

When asked if he would resign, Arbulu only said he accepted the judgment of the Commission in reprimanding him.

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

According to the documents obtained by the Advance, MDCR employee Todd Heywood told a state investigator that at a May 29 “listening session” in Grosse Pointe, Arbulu repeatedly made offensive comments to him about women, such as, “Check out that ass.” Heywood also said Arbulu told him that “he would not understand because he did not like women.”

Heywood then reported the comments to MDCR Deputy Director Mary Engleman and Communications Director Vicki Levengood, his supervisor. Engleman and Levengood reported the event to MDCR’s human resources department, prompting the official investigation.

During the course of the investigation, Arbulu told the Michigan Department of Corrections’ Joanne Bridgford that at the time of the comments, 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.'”

Bridgford noted that Arbulu “did indicate that he would make sexual comments about his daughter,” and that he told Bridgford “his daughter did show up to the June 4th Listening Session at Grosse Pointe schools and that ‘she looked hot!’”

Agustin Arbulu

When asked by the Advance if he had made his daughter aware of the comments before the publication of the Detroit News story, Arbulu said, “Family is family. It’s regrettable, the situation; it was a mistake, and I can’t change that.”

In Bridgford’s official conclusion, she writes, “It is more likely than not that Director Arbulu did make inappropriate, offensive comments regarding women to Mr. Heywood in violation of the work rule,” and that he “more likely than not made additional comments to Mr. Heywood regarding his sexual orientation.” 

Bridgford also wrote, “There is no evidence to support the allegation that Director Arbulu treats his female staff members any less than the male staff members,” and referred the case back to MDCR “for review and determination as to the appropriate actions necessary.”

Arbulu’s position is appointed by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC), not the governor. But in a letter to MDCR last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wrote that she has “serious concerns about the director’s ability to lead the department moving forward and the department’s ability to carry out its mission and serve the people of Michigan.”

Whitmer also requested “a written and detailed explanation of why the Commission has chosen to retain Director Arbulu as Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights despite the matters summarized in this letter.” 

Panel reprimands Michigan civil rights director for ‘inappropriate’ comments

In an email Friday, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said, “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.”

Daniel Levy, director of law and policy for MDCR, said in a letter Sunday that he could no longer work under Arbulu and that he is “simply not able to properly do my job under the present circumstances.”

Mary Whiteford | Casey Hull

House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) earlier this week called on Arbulu to resign.

State Rep. Mary Whiteford (R-Casco Twp.) said in a statement Friday, “The lack of transparency surrounding the investigation into Director Arbulu’s transgressions reflects poorly on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission and undermines the public’s trust in the department. 

“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.”

Levengood said Friday that the department does not have an official statement on the matter at this time.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Derek Robertson
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.