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GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan Pushes Back After More Republicans Call For Her Ouster

UPDATE: The Minnesota GOP executive board met Sunday night, but an official says they adjourned without discussing the future of Jennifer Carnahan, the party chair, or her ties to Anton Lazzaro, the party donor who's been indicted on federal sex trafficking charges. The board did pass motions to conduct a financial audit of the party and rid the organization of non-disclosure agreements. The party's next meeting is scheduled for Thursday night.

Meanwhile, Lazzaro is scheduled to make an appearance Monday in federal court. Also slated to be in court is 19-year-old Gisela Castro Medina, the former chair of University of St. Thomas' College Republicans who was arrested last week alongside Lazzaro.

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- More Minnesota Republicans are calling for state party chair Jennifer Carnahan to step down due to her ties to GOP donor and strategist Anton "Tony" Lazzaro, who was indicted Thursday on federal sex trafficking charges.

However, the embattled chair is pushing back, showing no sign that she plans to resign. Carnahan released a statement Sunday on Facebook, saying she was disappointed that party leaders were using "guilt by association" to demand her resignation. She also said that there have been false accusations and rumors circulating regarding party finances, human resource matters and non-disclosure agreements.

"The party and its leaders cannot be responsible for the actions of donors and unofficial persons (such as campaign managers) associated with Republican candidates, and we cannot be expected to know more than law enforcement when heinous charges such as this are brought to light," Carnahan wrote.

She said the state executive board would meet Sunday night to discuss issues surrounding Lazzaro and the party's operations.

RELATED: St. Thomas GOP Chair Gisela Castro Medina Arrested In Florida On Sex Trafficking Charges

Over the weekend, more Republicans joined the chorus of lawmakers, activists and party officials calling for Carnahan to step down. On Sunday, State Sens. Julia Coleman (Chanhassen), Michelle Benson (Ham Lake), and Mark Koran (North Branch) called for Carnahan's resignation. They also demanded an independent financial audit into the party and an investigation into its workings.

"The questions surrounding [Carnahan's] actions make it impossible for her to effectively serve as chair any longer," Coleman wrote in a statement.

If Carnahan does not step down, it'd be the responsibility of the party's executive board to remove her, Benson said.

"Without swift action and full transparency, we would leave the impression that the board and our party is comfortable with and willing to tolerate the chair's actions," Benson wrote in a statement.

Minnesota RNC Committeewoman Barb Sutter also called Sunday for Carnahan to step down, saying in a Facebook post that she "actively encouraged" Lazzaro's immersion in to the party structure over the last several years.

"Not only has she known him for some time, she has counted on him to donate to the party when she needed money to meet payrolls," Sutter said. "Her poor judgement of character and the resulting lack of leadership has tainted the Party, failed the victims of Lazzaro's crimes, and hampered the MN GOP's ability to be a strong force for common sense law-making in our state."

Sutter said that she and others would attempt to take meaningful action at Sunday's executive board meeting.

On Friday, Sen. Roger Chamberlain (R-Lino Lakes) called for Carnahan's resignation, as did former Minnesota GOP lawmaker and deputy chair Kelly Fenton. Four Minnesota House Republicans -- Reps. Steve Drazkowski (Mazeppa), Tim Miller (Prinsburg), Cal Bahr (East Bethel), and Jeremy Munson (Lake Crystal) -- have also called for Carnahan to step down.

"The Republican Party of Minnesota is in crisis," a statement signed by the House members said. "The conflicts of interest and the numerous deeply concerning
questions being brought to light need to be answered and resolved now. Investigations and audits do not mean the accusations are true. Investigating, disclosing, and addressing accusations is a duty of the board and our leadership and how we restore trust."

Jennifer Carnahan
Jennifer Carnahan (credit: CBS)

Carnahan is also dealing with another scandal, involving sexual harassment allegations against GOP staff members. Her office said in a statement late Sunday evening that the allegation "occurred in November 2020 and involved two Minnesota staff members in Georgia working on the run-off," and that the allegation wasn't brought to Carnahan's attention "until April 7, 2021, during her re-election, after the claim had been resolved."

GOP State Sen. Karin Housley released a statement Sunday evening where she blasted Caranhan's mishandling of the allegations -- and called for chairwoman's resignation.

"Just when you think it couldn't get worse, it does. That Republican Party of Minnesota leadership could have known about sexual harassment allegations involving one of its staff and done nothing is beyond the pale and reprehensible," Housley said. "The events that have transpired in recent days are shocking and embarrassing for our party. They have become a distraction from the work we need to be doing to win as Republicans in 2022. For the good of the party, I call on Jennifer Carnahan to resign and urge the executive board to take action to remove her from the position should the chairwoman remain."

Housley also joins other Republicans in supporting an independent audit of the party's finances, as well as an investigation into what Carnahan knew of Lazzaro's alleged crimes.

"If she did know something was going on, she needs to remove herself immediately," Housley said.

The Minnesota College Republicans released a statement Sunday calling for Carnahan's resignation. Nia Moore, the group's chair, says it was Carnahan's response to Lazzaro's arrest that raises issues with her, and Carnahan's treatment of victims.

"[Carnahan] doesn't represent us well," Moore said. "The things she posts online are immature, and she's nasty. I think it's time for someone to come up that can unite us and do a better job."

Lazzaro, 30, the founder of the GOP PAC Big Tent Republicans, was arrested Thursday on federal sex trafficking charges. He faces five counts of sex trafficking of minors, one count of attempted sex trafficking of a minor and three counts of obstruction. Lazzaro's attorney says his client is being falsely accused.

RELATED: Anton 'Tony' Lazzaro Charged With Recruiting 6 Minor Victims To Engage In Sex Acts

Lazzaro is deeply involved in Minnesota GOP politics. Lazzaro donated tens of thousands to Republican candidates and party units, state and federal campaign finance records show, including at least $42,000 to the Minnesota GOP; $15,600 to U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, who is the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee; and $21,000 to U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn. Hagedorn is Carnahan's husband.

Since Lazzaro was changed, Emmer, Hagedorn, and others have since said they will donate the contributions Lazzaro made to charity.

Still, Carnahan's close ties to Lazzaro have garnered intense scrutiny in recent days. In 2019 and early 2020, Carnahan hosted a podcast with Lazzaro, but she has made no mention of her affiliation with him since the news of the sex trafficking allegations broken. Even her statement on Sunday did not detail her relationship with Lazzaro. She only called the allegations against him "disgusting" and "abhorrent," saying they warrant punishment to the full extent of the law.

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