Minnesota GOP chair's future uncertain after friend and donor arrested for child sex trafficking

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. (Getty Images)

Republican Party of Minnesota Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan's future is uncertain after a close friend and major donor was indicted and arrested Thursday on child sex trafficking charges.

Anton "Tony" 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.

The Minnesota GOP's 15-member State Executive Committee has scheduled a 9 p.m. Friday meeting to discuss whether to audit the party's finances and what to do with the money Lazzaro has given to the party. Carnahan was flying back from Nashville for the meeting.

Numerous Republican politicians distanced themselves from Lazzaro after his arrest. Meanwhile, Carnahan and her husband, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, issued statements highlighting Lazzaro's legal right to due process. Lazzaro has a deep personal connection with Carnahan and Hagedorn: he was among a few dozen people who attended the couple's 2018 wedding in California.

Some Republican activists are now clamoring for Carnahan's immediate resignation, calling her a liability and a distraction for the party. As of Friday afternoon, Carnahan had not indicated whether she planned to step aside. Neither she nor a GOP spokesman answered questions about how she would address party officials.

Lazzaro has contributed at least $42,000 in recent years to the Republican Party of Minnesota, becoming a major benefactor only after Carnahan's 2017 election as Minnesota GOP chairwoman.

In a statement issued Friday morning, Carnahan called the allegations against Lazzaro "abhorrent" if true and said the Minnesota GOP would donate his campaign contributions to charity. She did not address her personal ties to Lazzaro, which include a podcast the pair did in 2019 and 2020. Carnahan also did not say whether the state party would redirect money Lazzaro gave to local GOP units or his contributions to her campaign for party chair.

Hagedorn said separately that he would donate Lazzaro's campaign cash to charity. Lazzaro has given $21,000 to Hagedorn's campaigns and political action committee since 2017, the most of any Minnesota candidate, Federal Election Commission records indicate.

Details on the specific charities and amounts will be made public only once the donations are made, Hagedorn's spokesperson told FOX 9 by email.

Numerous party insiders said Friday morning that Carnahan should leave office.

"(Carnahan) is a liability to our Party & anyone running under our banner," tweeted Kelly Fenton, a former state lawmaker and deputy GOP chair from Woodbury. "Those actively engaged should call for her to step aside so new leadership can clean it up & focus on winning. 2022 could be a good year for #GOP. I’ll start: For good of Party, please resign!"

But Carnahan's opponents within the GOP will face high hurdles to remove her if the chairwoman holds onto power.

Removal would require a two-thirds vote of the State Executive Board and a majority vote by those present at the next meeting of the larger State Central Committee, according to the Minnesota GOP's constitution.

Republican sources said Lazzaro didn't have many deep connections in the state GOP, other than Carnahan. The two met in 2016 during Carnahan's failed campaign for a state Senate seat after Carnahan dropped a literature piece at Lazzaro's downtown Minneapolis condo, they said on a 2019 podcast episode.

Until Carnahan got elected as party chair in 2017, Lazzaro was a bit player in Minnesota GOP politics, interviews and campaign finance records indicate. But after Carnahan's election, he became a significant contributor to GOP candidates and the party itself.

Lazzaro lived the high life in a $900,000 downtown Minneapolis condo, but it all unraveled in recent months. Federal agents seized $371,000, foreign currency, rare precious metals and 16 cell phones, tablets and laptops from his home in December, according to an indictment unsealed Thursday.

It's unclear how much Carnahan and Hagedorn knew, and when.

Numerous politicians who received Lazzaro's campaign cash have now disavowed him.

State Sen. Karin Housley was the first, announcing Thursday evening that she would donate the $1,500 that Lazzaro gave her 2018 U.S. Senate campaign to a charity for child trafficking victims. U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, a member of House GOP leadership, followed shortly after.

Emmer, a member of House GOP leadership, has received $15,600 from Lazzaro since 2017, FEC records indicate. In a statement, Emmer called news of Lazzaro's indictment "deeply disturbing."

Attorney General candidate Doug Wardlow, Minnesota House GOP Leader Kurt Daudt, and U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach all said they would donate Lazzaro's contributions to their campaigns.

As a strategist, Lazzaro headed up the political action committee Big Tent Republicans, which sought to target a diverse voting base for the party, including people of color, LGBT voters, and women. According to his website, Lazzaro also ran a marketing firm called Gold River Group.

Lazzaro also served on the campaign team for Lacy Johnson, the Republican candidate challenging Rep. Ilhan Omar in the race for Minnesota's 5th Congressional District in 2020.

Lazzaro appeared in court Thursday afternoon for a detention hearing, which was continued until August 16.

UPDATE: In a statement, State Senator Roger Chamberlain called on Carnahan to resign immediately in a statement issued Friday night. The statement reads as follows:

"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."