The Week that Shook Up the Top of MN GOP


The arrest of Anton Lazzaro on child sex trafficking charges hit the major Twin Cities news outlets on Thursday afternoon, August 12.  Lazzaro was identified as a major Minnesota Republican donor and political operative.  There is no credible evidence Carnahan knew of or was involved in any of Lazzaro’s alleged crimes, but his arrest initiated a series of events within the top ranks of the MN Republican Party that ultimately led to her resignation as MN GOP Chair.

The August 12 news reports noted connections between Lazzaro and Carnahan.  “He was part of the team that helped Carnahan first win her position at the state party in 2017.”  Pictures surfaced of Lazzaro with Rep. Jim Hagedorn and Carnahan at Minnesota Vikings games. Lazzaro and Carnahan also were the hosts of a political podcast for a few month in 2019 and 2020.

Also on August 13, Fox 9 News posted that Carnahan and Lazzaro had met in 2016 “during Carnahan’s failed campaign for a state Senate seat.”  Lazzaro apparently contributed to her campaign for party chair.  Fox9 News further linked the start of Lazzaro’s significant contributions to the Republican Party of Minnesota, reported to be as much as $42,000, to Carnahan’s 2017 election as MN GOP chairwoman.

Within the MN GOP’s 15-member State Executive Committee, the initial concern was trying to understand how much money Lazzaro had donated to the state party.  AlphaNews reported  that Lazzaro “had donated more than $150,000 to Republican candidates and causes across Minnesota.”   An emergency meeting was called for 9 pm August 13  Several of the members of the committee pushed to go beyond what to do with the money.  They once again called for an audit of the party’s finances.

Concerns about Jennifer Carnahan's viability were growing beyond her connection to Lazzaro.  Former MN GOP Deputy Chair and state legislator Kelly Fenton was perhaps the first to publicly urge Chair Carnahan to resign.  On August 13, Fenton tweeted her opinion that Carnahan “is a liability to our Party & anyone running under our banner.  Those actively engaged should call for her to step aside so new leadership can clean it up & focus on winning. … I’ll start:  For good of Party, please resign!”

Fox 9 News also carried the statement of State Senator Roger Chamberlain, issued the evening of August 13:

“MNGOP Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan must resign immediately.  The charges against Anton Lazzaro of sex trafficking minors are deeply disturbing, disgusting, and repulsive, and Carnahan’s close, ongoing relationship with him is troubling to say the least.  I find it impossible to believe she didn’t know about his activities.

“That relationship is cause enough for Carnahan’s resignation.  The additional allegations of sexual assault, harassment, intimidation, and fraud that occurred on her watch simply make it all the more clear that she must step down immediately.  I disavow her, Mr. Lazzaro, and their actions in the strongest possible terms.

“I will be praying for their victims.”

On August 14, state Reps. Steve Drazkowski, Tim Miller, Cal Bahr and Jeremy Munson posted a letter urging Carnahan to resign.  They wrote, “We need a change in leadership. We have an elected leader with toxic conflicts of interest surrounding herself with a board that fails to act.”  Separately, former state Sen. Scott Jensen issued his own call..

AlphaNews reiterated that calls for her resignation were now citing mismanagement of the party.  Pressure was starting to mount on the members of the state Executive Committee to remove Carnahan as party chair.  AlphaNews recalled that it had reported just prior to her re-election in April that Carnahan had been accused by several current and past committee members of creating a toxic culture of fear and intimidation while mismanaging the party’s finances.

A motion raised at a State Executive Committee meeting to remove a sitting chair requires two-thirds of the members to agree, and then it must also garner a majority vote of the state party’s State Central Committee.  On August 14, two-thirds of the State Executive Committee members were not prepared to vote to remove Carnahan.

However, damning information continued to come to light. Rebecca Brannon, a local writer and photographer with sources among activists in the state party, tweeted out a recorded telephone conversation in which an “intoxicated Carnahan … says of her husband, Congressman Jim Hagedorn, ‘I don’t care … Jim’s gonna’ be dead in two years.  So be it.”

On August 15, Republican state Sens. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake and Julia Coleman of Chanhassen added their voices to the calls for resignation.

Jennifer Carnahan issued a statement appearing to distance herself from Lazzaro, stating that party leaders were using “guilt by association” to demand her resignation.  She went further by calling out “additional false accusations and a misrepresentation of facts regarding finances, human resource matters and non-disclosure agreements levied against myself and others. … The coup taking place right now to relitigate the [2021] chair's race, smear my reputation and defame me is not right.”

Barb Sutter, Republican National Committeewoman and member of the State Executive Committee, responded shortly thereafter in a Facebook post, excerpted here:

“I genuinely hoped to find commonality with her and the majority of our Executive Committee at our subsequent meeting this past Friday night, in dealing with this shocking turn of events. Sadly, our Party’s response did not meet those expectations. Though several of us tried, no meaningful actions were taken. We will make another attempt tonight.

“Chair Carnahan brought Tony Lazzaro into the fold in 2017, and she actively encouraged his complete immersion into the party structure and the homes of activists and donors. Not only has she known him for some time, she has counted on him to donate to the party when she needed money to meet payrolls. Her poor judgement of character and the resulting lack of leadership has tainted the Party, failed the victims of Lazzaro’s crimes, and hampered the MN GOP’s ability to be a strong force for common sense law-making in our state.

”Jennifer’s disparaging public remarks about individuals that do not support her reflect a serious lack of judgment and a callous disregard for others. And now, I am absolutely devastated to hear her heartless remarks about her husband.

“Calls to ‘come together as a party’ and ‘rally around our Chair’ are not addressing the problem. For the sake of our Party’s and our state’s future, I am asking that Jennifer Carnahan step down.”

Another emergency meeting of the State Executive Committee met the evening of August 15.  The meeting was intended to address calls for an audit of the party’s finances and a release of former employees from the non-disclosure agreements they had been required to sign.  MPR reported, however, that allies of the chair on the committee moved to adjourn the meeting before further discussion and a vote on her leadership could be taken. The next morning,  Carnahan “issued a lengthy and often blistering letter” calling for a meeting of the State Executive Committee on August 19, pushing for a vote of confidence or no confidence.

On August 17, former GOP Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, in an on-air interview on MPR, called for Carnahan to resign.   By the evening of August 17, the Star Tribune was reporting that “three Republican candidates for governor, a dozen lawmakers and four members of the party's executive board have called for her to resign.”

Despite the drumbeat of Minnesota Republicans that spoke their support for Carnahan to step down, a sizeable number of supporters continued to push back.  They texted and posted that the claims of a close relationship with Lazzaro and of a toxic work environment at MN GOP Headquarters were unsubstantiated rumors and vindictive attacks.

Then, on August 17, four former Executive Directors under Carnahan released a lengthy statement providing their witness to those allegations.  According to the Star Tribune, Becky Alery, Andy Aplikowski, Christine Snell and Kevin Poindexter wrote that Carnahan “ ruled by grudges, retaliation, and intimidation” in the party, often withholding prized party data to help candidates she supported.  They said that she retaliated against those who spoke out against her, often trying to prevent former staff from getting other jobs.

The four said that they were able to speak out after the state Executive Committee voted on August 15 to void the nondisclosure agreements that Carnahan used to silence staff.  “Carnahan created an extremely toxic work environment, often yelling, demeaning and questioning loyalty.  We would be reprimanded if we did not glowingly ‘pump up’ and stroke the ego of Carnahan in our rare public appearances.”

The Star Tribune went on to mention that “multiple women detailed in social media posts their experiences being harassed or spoken to inappropriately by staff in the party, a culture they said went unchecked.” 

Kayla Khang, who served for a period as a 17-year-old intern, also confirmed on August 17 that she experienced it personally before she left the job and the state.  In addition, Nia Moore, the chair of the Minnesota College Republicans said that she had personally endured “several counts of sexual harassment while working within the Minnesota GOP.”  Moore went on to report that she had spoken to numerous Minnesota College Republicans with “similar and more severe stories” but feared retaliation from Carnahan.  Karly Hahn, a previous chair of the Minnesota College Republicans, posted that she has “experienced firsthand the bounds [Carnahan] is willing to go to silence those she dislikes.”  Hahn criticized Carnahan’s “blatant disregard” for the experiences of victims “under her watch.”

AlphaNews also spoke of the way that Carnahan weaponized non-disclosure agreements.  Andy Aplikowski, one of the former Executive Directors that came out against her, wrote to the state Executive Committee that Carnahan had offered him $10,000 in exchange for his silence. “You can’t ignore that every single person put in the ED position by Chair Carnahan has quit or been fired in a flash with little to no explanation.”

On August 18, National Committeeman and MNGOP Executive Committee member Max Rymer issued his call (excerpted):

“Tomorrow evening, I will be voting to remove Jennifer Carnahan as State Party Chair, if she will not resign. I believe it is the most helpful thing I can do for the party right now.

“The accusations of workplace abuse, sexual harassment, attempts to silence, and a toxic environment are vast, believable, and must all be independently investigated. For this very reason, it was necessary to come together as a board and waive the “Party’s” legal rights of all NDA’s and separation agreements. These agreements (and the weaponized perception of such agreements) do not protect the party; they protect one person. These stories must continue to be told if we are to ever correct ourselves and get better.

“Functionally, the Party is in an untenable position. Stories will continue to break, activists will check out, candidates will suffer and what’s left of our donor pool will dry up. There is no path forward with our current leadership. Instead of the story being about Tim Walz’s failures, or our platform, or our candidates, it will be about Anton Lazzaro and Jennifer Carnahan.”

On the morning of the August 19 State Executive Committee meeting, AlphaNews went into detail on the allegations of the four Executive Directors that spoke out after their non-disclosure agreements were voided.

“’While we did not have knowledge of many of the saddening stories of sexual assault or harassment, unfortunately, we can corroborate and back up many of the other stories that have been shared to date,’ said Kevin Poindexter, Becky Alery, Christine Snell, and Andy Aplikowski.

“’It has been all too common for her to cross professional boundaries by including staff in personal issues and drama,’ they write.  But there was no one to turn to because all of the party’s HR positions were filled by Carnahan’s handpicked loyalists.

“The four ex-staffers allege that it was Carnahan’s liberal and expansive use of NDAs that allowed her to win a third term as chair. Her critics were silenced.

“’Carnahan is very much the person the supposed ‘coup’ is making her out to be. She has successfully insulated herself with loyal staff and packed the State Executive Board and committees with people who will vote exactly how she wants them to protect her,’” they say in their letter.”

On August 19, six members of the MNGOP Executive Committee summed up the situation in their joint emailed statement (excerpt):

“One short week ago an indictment of a major Republican Party donor upended politics in Minnesota. We are sure you’re aware of at least some of the details in the alleged sex-trafficking case against Tony Lazzaro. The situation would have been damaging with any donor, but Tony was different. Through his relationship with Chair Carnahan he was involved at every level of the MNGOP. He was a donor who helped make payroll when times were tight, he was a campaign consultant, he had a PAC, he was on the board of the fundraising committee known as the Elephant Club, he hosted a podcast with the Chair, and he donated to Republican candidates far and wide.

“The party issued a weak response after waiting nearly a day to say anything.

“The arrest of an alleged co-conspirator, a 19 year old College Republican Chapter Chair, raised even more questions. This began the constant drip of allegations, personal statements, and news stories. By Sunday it was clear that the Party’s lackluster response and relative silence had allowed the situation to get completely out of control. We want to make it clear that we do not believe Jennifer Carnahan knew anything about the alleged crimes of Tony Lazzaro. That being said, we exist in the court of public opinion. Her close ties with him will be brought up at every hearing, legal motion, trial, and appeal. By Sunday it was clear that the Chair had to resign for the good of the party.

“The MNGOP Executive Board was set to meet on Sunday night. We were able to get through some basic steps needed for transparency including waiving the Party’s rights under non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreements and beginning the process of an independent financial audit. We were prepared to make a motion to remove the Chair from office on Sunday night. Unfortunately other members of the Executive Board adjourned early.

“From that point this monumental crisis grew beyond anything we could have imagined.

“Multiple allegations of sexual harassment have come out, some including claims that they brought these up to other Party staff or the Chair without any follow-up. Links to several of the statements below:

“A former MNGOP Political Director and the last four Executive Directors have described a toxic work environment like none other. Links below:

 “It’s clear that a non-partial, independent investigation must be launched immediately. It is also clear that Jennifer Carnahan’s ability to lead the party is completely compromised. Her continued presence is a distraction from addressing major issues and we cannot continue to avoid action. The State Executive Board is meeting tonight and we have a chance to do the right thing.”

The statement was signed by MNGOP Secretary Dave Pascoe, RNC National Committeewoman Barb Sutter, RNC National Committeeman Max Rymer, CD1 State Exec Representative Gary Steuart, CD3 Chair Patti Meier, and CD6 Chair Bobby Benson.  They represented six votes on a 15-member Executive Committee going into the deciding meeting that evening, August 19.

CLICK HERE to read about the outcome of the state Executive Committee meeting on August 19.