ST. PAUL — After an avalanche of accusations of workplace toxicity and sexual harassment claims from within the party, Jennifer Carnahan has resigned her post as chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, voting in favor of her own severance package on her way out.
The party's executive committee on Thursday, Aug. 19, by an 8-7 vote granted Carnahan a three-month severance package, with Carnahan herself being the tiebreaking vote. State GOP Central Committee alternate Sheri Auclair told reporters the package is worth about $38,150.
Auclair, who organized a small rally in support of Carnahan's removal, choked up when she told reporters Thursday night that she was "disgusted, absolutely disgusted" by the committee's decision and Carnahan's tie-breaking vote. She described the state party as "in ruins."
"That's the only way she will walk away, is for money," Auclair said. "You don't tell me that she cares anything about the party and where we're going to go and the future of the party. She only cares about herself and money in her pocket."
The vote comes a week after former GOP donor and activist Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, a friend of Carnahan’s, was indicted on federal sex trafficking charges. In the days that followed, state GOP staff members, lawmakers and activists made public allegations of a toxic culture within the political party and reports of unaddressed sexual assault and harassment, even aside from Lazzaro's alleged behavior.
Minutes after the severance vote, the official Twitter account of the party shared Carnahan's resignation statement.
"Our party has faced difficult circumstances this past week with the indictment of one of our party's major donors for the heinous acts of sex trafficking and obstruction of justice," Carnahan wrote. "I want to be very clear in unequivocally stating I had no knowledge or involvement in those activities.
"However, I signed up for this party to help us elect Republicans and I want to ensure we can continue to do that. At this point, it is in the best interest of the party and my mental health to resign from my position as Chairwoman."
Despite their friendship, Carnahan has denied the allegations of impropriety within the party and said she was not aware of what Lazzaro was doing in his private life.
The accusations go beyond Lazzaro's indictment, though. Bobby Benson, who represents the 6th Congressional District on the executive committee, said that once the Lazzaro indictment came to light, "it opened the door. Other people felt comfortable and had the courage to come forward and share a lot of stories."
Among them were several young women who have came forward with accusations of sexual harassment at the hands of party donors, volunteers or employees during Carnahan's time as chair. Nia Moore, chair of the Minnesota College Republicans, in a tweet detailed several instances of sexual harassment she endured and described being dismissed when she told others in the party about the bad behavior.
"... I do not see young conservative women feeling safe to enter our political party with (Carnahan) as its leader," Moore wrote.
In addition to voting on Carnahan's severance, committee members on Thursday voted to have an independent third party investigate the sexual harassment claims, as well as conduct an audit of the party's finances. The party will also reexamine and update its human resources policies, which Benson said have failed.
Benson told reporters after the committee adjourned that he was one of the seven members who "did not vote to give anyone any extra money." Asked what he had to say to GOP donors whose money is going toward Carnahan's severance, he said, "I'm just as disappointed as they are. More disappointed."
But Sara Rasque-Michener, who represents the 4th Congressional District on the executive committee, said the vote was more complicated than that. She was one of the eight to vote in favor of the severance.
In the end, she said the committee had negotiated it down to roughly $38,000, down from Carnahan's ask of $96,000.
"In all honesty, it just needed to be done," Rasque-Michener said. "If we would have not done it, she wouldn't have resigned."
Had Carnahan not willingly resigned, Rasque-Michener said she was confident the executive committee had more than the necessary two-thirds (10 out of 15) votes to remove her.
But the executive committee doesn't get the final say. After an executive committee vote, the state central committee, which comprises of over 300 members, would then have had to meet in 13 days to vote on the issue. And that vote only would have required a simple majority for or against Carnahan.
Rasque-Michener said she played out the scenarios in her head — how without Carnahan's resignation that night, she could have won the votes to stay as chair.
"It's so contentious. People were like, 'Give her nothing,'" Rasque-Michener said. "I'm just sitting there like, 'Yes, but I don't want to have to go another 13 days. Because what if they didn't approve our vote? Now she is still chair."
In a series of public statements and media interviews, Carnahan has described the onslaught of allegations against her as a "coup," and accused party members of relitigating her recent reelection to serve as party chair earlier this year.
Carnahan co-hosted a podcast with Lazzaro, has been photographed with him outside of work settings, and Lazzaro was invited to Carnahan's wedding to husband and Republican U.S. Rep. for Minnesota Jim Hagedorn.
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Former GOP Executive Director Andy Aplikowski on Thursday released a statement noting that Carnahan had been asked about Lazzaro in July and mandated Aplikowski to keep the inquiry a secret. He also said he and other former executive directors had been offered separation payments when they left their roles in exchange for an agreement that they wouldn’t speak ill of the party.
In addition to Lazzaro, 19-year-old Gisela Castro Medina was also indicted as part of the investigation.
“My version of a politically weaponized severance agreement can be boiled down to the following: it included the following non-disparagement clause in exchange for $10,000,” Aplikowski said. “We now know that there have been multiple severance agreements with large payouts but we don’t know how many or for how much. This is donor money that could be used to help elect Republicans, but instead Carnahan used donor money to silence former Republican staffers.”
Aplikowski's comments came a day after four former Minnesota Republican Party executive directors published a joint statement highlighting their concerns about the toxic culture and harassment present under Carnahan’s tenure as chair. They said a recent decision by the party’s Executive Board waived their non-disclosure agreements and allowed them to share experiences among themselves and with the public for the first time.
Dana Ferguson contributed to this report.