MINNEAPOLIS — A growing number of state Republican legislators and other party leaders are calling on state party chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan to resign immediately, following the sex trafficking indictment of a top party donor. Minnesota GOP strategist and donor Anton "Tony" Lazzaro, 30, faces federal charges of recruiting and sex trafficking minors.
Over the weekend, 19-year-old Gisela Castro Medina, chairwoman of the University of St. Thomas College Republicans, was arrested in Florida on allegations of aiding Lazzaro. Lazzaro, who was arrested Thursday, Aug. 12, and remains in the Sherburne County jail for his first court hearing Monday, has ties to many prominent state Republicans, including Carnahan, who recently co-hosted a podcast with Lazzaro.
Carnahan did not respond to repeated calls for comment over the weekend, but released a lengthy statement Sunday on Facebook, saying that "leaders in our party are now using guilt by association to demand my resignation," while saying that the party and its leaders "cannot be responsible for the actions of donors and unofficial persons" like Lazzaro.
"The coup taking place right now to relitigate the chair's race, smear my reputation and defame me is not right," she wrote. She added that the party took immediate action to donate Lazzaro's contributions to charity and condemn his actions as well as Medina's. The state's executive committee is convening Sunday evening, she said, to discuss the matter.
Carnahan is married to U.S. Rep Jim Hagedorn, R-Minn., and photos of the couple with Lazzaro are circulating on social media.
The Minnesota Reformer reports that several anonymous party officials came forward following the Lazzaro indictment, saying that Carnahan forced staffers and donors to sign nondisclosure agreements "prolifically" to silence staff. On Saturday through the MN GOP's Twitter account, Carnahan released a statement regarding the arrests and charges, but she did not address the growing number of calls from within her party to resign.
"The arrest and charges involving Ms. Gisela Castro Medina, in conjunction with Thursday's arrest and sex trafficking charges of Mr. Anton Lazzaro are heinous and disturbing," Carnahan wrote, adding that the Minnesota GOP has "no jurisdiction over the Minnesota College Republicans, including the chapter at the University of St. Thomas.
The federal indictment alleges Lazzaro recruited six minors to engage in sex for money over several months last year.
Carnahan added that the party stands with victims of sex trafficking. But some Republicans say the statement isn't enough and the chairwoman should step down.
Scott Jensen, a family physician from Chaska and former Republican state senator who is running for governor, released a video Saturday evening on Facebook, where he is restricted from making advertisements due to repeatedly posting content that has been debunked by third-party fact-checkers .Jensen said in the nearly 3-minute-long video that Carnahan must immediately resign while thanking her for her service. Carnahan first took over as GOP chairwoman in 2017.
"It's hard to be a leader. Sometimes it's even harder to know when to stop being a leader," Jensen said. "We're broken. Transparency is gone. Respect for one another and building a culture of respect is not present. Accountability is often best achieved through audits and the potential to right the ship through audits has been declined numerous times," he said.
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, was the first legislator to call for Carnahan's immediate resignation, while adding that he will be "praying for the victims" of Lazzaro.
"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," he wrote. "That relationship is cause enough for Carnahan's resignation."
Barb Sutter, a Republican National Committeewoman and executive committee member, released a statement Sunday saying that Carnahan brought Lazzaro "into the fold in 2017, and she actively encouraged his complete immersion into the party structure and the homes of activists and donors."
"Her poor judgement of character and the resulting lack of leadership has tainted the party," Sutter wrote, adding that Carnahan's calls to "come together as a party" and "rally around our Chair" do not address the problem, and she must step down "for the sake of our Party's and state's future."
Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, said in a statement that Lazzaro is "the worst humanity has to offer," adding that if Carnahan did not have "the wisdom to recognize the evil that lurks within," she is unfit to lead.
On Saturday, a letter sent to the state GOP executive board signed by Republican state Reps. Steven Drazkowski of Mazeppa, Tim Miller of Prinsburg, Cal Bahr of East Bethel and Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal called for a change in leadership, saying Carnahan has "toxic conflicts of interest surrounding herself with a board that fails to act."
"The news of a close, personal friend and advisor to our state party chair being indicted and arrested for heinous crimes against children doesn't just look bad. It is bad," the state GOP lawmakers wrote.
Minnesota Young Republicans issued a statement Sunday calling for Carnahan's resignation as well. GOP state Sens. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake, Julia Coleman of Chanhassen and Andrew Matthews of Princeton have also called for her to resign, along with Mark Koran of North Branch, who challenged Carnahan for party chair this year.
(Star Tribune staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.)
©2021 StarTribune. Visit startribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.