EDINA, Minn. (WCCO) -- Embattled Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan resigned from her post Thursday after top party officers approved thousands of dollars in severance pay, a move that marks the beginning of a new chapter for an organization mired in controversy.
The State Executive Board during its meeting voted 8-7 approving a three-month's severance totaling about $38,000. Carnahan herself was the deciding vote. The board unanimously approved launching an independent investigation into allegations about the party's workplace culture during Carnahan's tenure.
"I signed up for this party to help us elect Republicans and I want to ensure we can continue to do that," Carnahan said in a statement following the vote. "At this point, it's in the best interest of the party and my mental health to resign from my position as Chairwoman."
The payout and subsequent departure represent a significant turning point in a week-long scandal which included allegations that Carnahan cultivated a toxic work environment and ignored claims of sexual harassment by members of her staff. She also faced questions about her close ties to Anton Lazzaro, a top GOP donor accused of sex trafficking minors.
Carnahan denies all accusations against her and firmly rejects that she knew anything about Lazzaro's alleged criminal activity.
"It is unfortunate that the mob mentality has come out in this way to defame, tarnish and attempt to ruin my personal and professional reputation," she said. "I am confident a full investigation will uncover the facts and prove my innocence."
Many party activists, Republican lawmakers and former staff said Carnahan had to step down—or the executive board would need to force her out—in wake of the troubling allegations. Four former executive directors of the MN GOP said she had "morally bankrupt" the party during her tenure and ruled by retaliation.
But some of her critics were stunned by the decision to pay Carnahan on her way out the door.
Bobby Benson, who is on the executive board and voted against the "absurd" severance package, said he asked that Carnahan recuse herself from voting on a measure in her own self-interest, but that didn't happen.
He said the most important task moving forward is for the party to rebuild trust with donors and supporters—and that victims be heard.
"I think we're closing a chapter. A lot of people were hurt and we need to think about them first," he said immediately after the meeting. "We've got some making up to do to people and we're going to have to fix some of this stuff. We've still got problems—they're not going away."
Sheri Auclair, a GOP activist and alternate state central committee delegate who was in the room during the vote, said she was "disgusted" that Carnahan received a severance package. Earlier Thursday, she urged fellow Republicans to protest outside the Minnesota GOP Headquarters in Edina.
"This party is in ruins," she said, at one point moved to tears. "As a past large donor to this state, to know money that I gave is going into her pocket because it's the only way she'll walk away, is for money—don't tell me she cares anything about the party."
"She only cares about herself and money and her pocket," Auclair said.
Deputy Party Chair Carleton Crawford, who brought forward the payout proposal motion, said he saw it as the only way to compromise and move forward. He acknowledged the divisions within the party over the decision.
"The longer that we kept having to fight over what the past was with the chair in place, the longer it was going to take to actually resolve the issue," he said. "And I definitely recognize that paying severance to an outgoing officer is painful. In the end, I made the determination that the Band-Aid needed to be ripped off.
"In the end what I made I was a political determination."
The original proposal was to pay Carnahan eight-month's salary in exit pay before negotiating it down to three-month's worth of compensation.
An independent investigation into claims of that sexual harassment allegations were swept under the rug and that the party's Human Resources department failed to respond adequately is forthcoming. On Sunday, the board had already approved auditing the party's finances because of Lazzaro's contributions, which have been pledged to charity.
Benson said the investigation needs to be transparent: "We need to get to the bottom of what happened, why it happened, what we're going to do to make sure it doesn't happen again."
As Republicans try to move past the turmoil that has consumed party politics in recent days, just on the horizon are the consequential 2022 mid-term elections. At stake are all 201 seats in the Minnesota Legislature, Minnesota's eight Congressional seats and the governor's office.
The State Central Committee will need to convene a meeting within 45 days to select a new party chair.
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