Minnesota GOP chair holds onto power as calls for resignation grow

Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan looks on during the national anthem during a rally for President Donald Trump at the Bemidji Regional Airport on September 18, 2020 in Bemidji, Minnesota. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images / Getty Images)

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan is daring her board to take a vote of no confidence against her this week, as she faces growing calls to resign.

The Minnesota GOP's Executive Committee agreed to launch an investigation of the party's finances and waive the GOP's nondisclosure agreements Sunday night in a rebuke of Carnahan. But the board, which is controlled by Carnahan supporters, allowed the chairwoman to stay in power.

The arrest of Carnahan's close friend and big donor Tony Lazzaro on child sex trafficking charges has thrown the Minnesota GOP into crisis. The fast-moving story intensified over the weekend, as Carnahan's critics campaigned against her on Twitter and the chairwoman battled back in a series of statements leading up to Sunday night's Executive Committee meeting.

Three members of the Executive Committee have called on Carnahan to resign. As of Monday morning, at least 14 state lawmakers and the GOP's frontrunner in the 2022 governor's race have said Carnahan should quit or be fired.

"I think that there's some people on the executive board and on her team, her supporters in general, who think that if she just holds on, this will all blow over. There's no way that's going to happen," said Minnesota GOP Secretary Dave Pascoe, an Executive Committee member calling for Carnahan to step down. "There's going to be hearings, there's going to be trials, there's going to be appeals. And that's all going to go on during the 2022 election cycle."

Carnahan wrote a letter, obtained by FOX 9 and later released by the GOP itself, to party insiders and accused her critics of trying to "destroy my chairmanship and defame my personal reputation."

Carnahan said she was the victim of "guilt by association" because of her friendship with Lazzaro.

Lazzaro, 30, faces five counts of sex trafficking of a minor, a count of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of minors, and another count of attempted sex trafficking, along with three counts of obstruction, according to an unsealed indictment. An arraignment and detention hearing originally scheduled for Monday has been delayed until Aug. 24, according to online federal court records.

Co-defendant Gisela Medina, 19, was indicted Monday on the same charges. She appeared in a federal courtroom in Pensacola, Florida, and will be brought back to Minnesota. Lazzaro and Medina will both be jailed until their next court appearances, the U.S. Attorney's office said.

The feds said they believe there are additional victims and urged anyone with information to call 763-569-8000.

In the past decade, Lazzaro has given $273,000 to Republican causes overall -- including $42,000 to the Minnesota GOP and several thousand more to its local party units since Carnahan became chair in 2017. Carnahan has not said how much Lazzaro bankrolled her three races for party chair. Lazzaro was one of a few dozen people to attend Carnahan's 2018 wedding to U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn and has frequently been seen at social events with the couple.

What actions did the Executive Committee take?

Republican officials approved two motions Sunday’s meeting with Carnahan abstaining from both votes. The Executive Committee unanimously ordered an independent audit of the party’s finances over the past three years to find out where Lazzaro's cash went.

The committee voted more narrowly to waive any non-disclosure agreements issued by the Minnesota GOP that prevented former staffers from speaking out. The Executive Committee will reconsider the vote at Thursday's meeting after one member changed her mind, Carnahan said Monday.

The non-disclosure agreements were called into question over the weekend by several members of the Executive Committee, numerous state lawmakers, and GOP activists. A source close to the party said Carnahan asked staffers to sign NDAs when they were leaving in exchange for severance pay.

Monday, Carnahan refuted the characterization of the agreements as "hush money."

The 15-member Executive Committee avoided the question of Carnahan's status. Pascoe, the party's secretary, said the panel voted 8-6 to adjourn the meeting late Sunday night instead of discussing Carnahan's future. The chairwoman abstained from the vote.

Removing a party chair is a high hurdle: 10 of the 15 members must vote for removal, then be followed by a majority of those present at the next meeting of the larger State Central Committee.

Who's calling for Carnahan's resignation?

Six state senators, eight representatives and Republican gubernatorial frontrunner Scott Jensen have called for Carnahan to step down.

State Sen. Roger Chamberlain was the first sitting lawmaker to make such a request Friday night. Since then, five other members of the Senate have joined him, including Michelle Benson, a potential 2022 governor candidate, and Mark Koran, who unsuccessfully challenged Carnahan in the 2021 party chair's race. The others are: Sens. Julia Coleman, Andrew Mathews and Karin Housley.

The four-member New House Republican caucus called for Carnahan's resignation in a letter signed by Reps. Steve Drazkowski, Jeremy Munson, Cal Bar and Tim Miller. State Reps. Marion O'Neill, Nolan West, Peggy Scott and Shane Mekeland have also said Carnahan should resign.

Joining Pascoe on the Executive Committee are Republican National Committeewoman Barb Sutter and board member Bobby Benson.

But significant party officials have not spoken out about Carnahan's fate. U.S. Reps. Michelle Fischbach, Tom Emmer and Pete Stauber have not commented, nor have Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka or House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt.

Those highest-ranking officials were said to be looking for more clarity on the allegations and what the Executive Committee will do. Multiple sources also say they're waiting to see if a compromise replacement candidate emerges.

What's at issue?

Sunday, the Minnesota College Republicans claimed a former Minnesota GOP staffer sexually harassed several young women, including a member of the college group. In a statement, the organization accused chairwoman Carnahan of being aware of the incident and not acting.

The state party issued two statements Sunday night -- the second to clarify the first -- confirming that Carnahan was made aware of the allegations on April 7, "after the claim had been resolved." Board members said Carnahan had not informed them of the allegations.

Separately, the chairwoman faces several questions related to internal staffing discord under her leadership.

Executive director Andy Aplikowski was fired this month, leaving doubts about who is in control of the party's day-to-day operations. Party staffing has been a revolving door during Carnahan's four-year tenure as chair, with multiple firings and resignations.

Party finances are also an issue. The Minnesota GOP had just $177,000 in its federal account and $64,000 in debt at the end of June. That puts the party at a significant cash disadvantage to the Minnesota DFL, which had $1.5 million in the bank and $13,000 in debt.

The GOP's state account was in even worse shape at the end of 2020: just $8,400 in cash on hand, compared with the DFL's $735,000.

Carnahan resigns from Big Brothers Big Sisters

Carnahan did resign one position over the weekend: her seat on the board of Big Brothers Big Sisters Twin Cities.

"She didn’t want to put anything we do at risk from the recent news attention," said Lori Dossett, a spokeswoman for Big Brothers Big Sisters.