Advance Notice: Briefs

Panel reprimands Michigan civil rights director for ‘inappropriate’ comments

By: - August 2, 2019 6:15 am

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

Updated, 10:01 a.m., 8/2/19, with comments from Gov. Whitmer’s office

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission (MCRC) voted on July 29 in closed session to reprimand Agustin Arbulu, director of the Department of Civil Rights, for his comments that it deemed “inappropriate.”

Vicki Levengood, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, told the Advance on Friday that Arbulu’s comments were directed to a department staffer.

Alma Wheeler Smith

“We have determined that while the conduct of which the director was accused did not violate the law, his behavior fell short of the conduct the commission expects of its director, said Alma Wheeler Smith, the commission’s chair and a former longtime state lawmaker. 

“The Commission has determined that a formal reprimand will be placed in the director’s file, that he shall submit to a training and mentorship program to be approved by the chair and completed before the end of the year, and during that training period the director shall not conduct internal or external training sessions for other public or private entities.”

A Thursday press release did not disclose what the comments were. Levengood told the Advance she would follow up if she had “more information.”

Arbulu, who was appointed to the MCRC in 2013 by former Gov. Rick Snyder and became the state Department of Civil Rights executive director in 2015, issued a statement in response to the commission’s action.

“Recently I made comments objectifying women – comments that were unacceptable and regrettable,” he said. “The commission has determined that my conduct fell short of what is expected of the director of the Department of Civil Rights. I agree with their assessment, and I take full responsibility. I am deeply sorry and will not allow it to happen again. While I cannot change the past, I intend to use this experience as a learning opportunity, to help me become a better person and a better leader.”

The Michigan Department of Civil Rights, the operational arm of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, is charged with investigating and resolving discrimination complaints and working to prevent discrimination through educational programs that promote voluntary compliance with civil rights laws. It also provides information and services to businesses on diversity initiatives and equal employment law. 

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

Corina Andorfer is Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s director of compliance. She wrote a letter to Dan Levy of MDCR that the governor’s office is “deeply concerned” about the commission’s decision about Arbulu.

“Director Arbulu’s own comments, even if separated from the original complaint, simply fail to live up to the standards to which any department director should aspire, and particularly the director of a Civil Rights department,” Andorfer wrote. “The commission’s decision to retain him in the director position but remove him from a significant portion of the department’s responsibilities while he receives training on a matter that is core to the mission of the department is difficult to comprehend.”*

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.