MNGOP chair Jennifer Carnahan used non-disclosure agreements to stifle criticism, sources say

Carnahan faces calls for resignations after GOP operative, party donor charged with sex trafficking minors

By: - August 13, 2021 5:33 pm

Former 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. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

If Minnesota Republicans want to find out what the party knew about disgraced donor and operative Anton Lazzaro, they’ll have a hard time finding out. 

That’s because many in the party’s orbit — including staffers and at least one volunteer member of the party executive committee — were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements by Minnesota Republican Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan, according to two former party officials.

“She uses NDAs prolifically,” said one former party official who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about internal party matters. 

The state GOP executive committee is set to meet to deal with the fallout from Lazzaro’s indictment, unveiled Thursday, which alleges that he conspired with others to recruit and solicit six minor victims to engage in commercial sex acts. Through his lawyer, Lazzaro denied the allegations, telling the Star Tribune, “It is always unfortunate when the federal government abuses its power.” 

David Pascoe, the party secretary, said in a Facebook post that he would call for a financial review to determine all the Lazzaro financial connections to the party. 

A growing number of Republicans, including elected officials, candidates, activists and operatives, began urging the party Friday to cut ties with Carnahan or for her to resign. Republican sources say she is close to Lazzaro, who has steadfastly defended her tenure. In 2018, Lazzaro wrote an opinion piece for Alpha News, titled: “Jennifer Carnahan is the best thing to happen to the MN GOP.” Lazzaro has donated nearly $190,000 to GOP elected officials, candidates and affiliated groups, according to one tally published by the Minnesota DFL. 

Jill Vujovich, a conservative activist and consultant who served as a delegate to the Republican state central committee for more than two decades, said Carnahan needs to be pushed out now.

“If they’re smart and want this party to survive this midterm election, they need to ask for her resignation immediately,” Vujovich said “I’ve been an operative and activist since 1987, and this is beyond repulsive.”

Complicating matters, Carnahan is the wife of 1st District U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who has cancer. 

Carnahan did not respond to requests for comment via text message and email. On Friday, she was returning to Minneapolis after traveling to Tennessee for a political function where she hobnobbed with top RNC officials, including Republican U.S. Senate Marsha Blackburn, according to an Instagram post by Carnahan

Non-disclosure agreements, while common in the corporate world, are less so in politics. Past party officials do not recall their use under previous party chairs. 

A spokesman for the Minnesota DFL says it does not require staff to sign such agreements. 

Mark Zaid, an attorney with expertise in national security and non-disclosure agreements, said NDAs were uncommon in federal government until President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Trump campaign sued a number of individuals claiming they violated non-disclosure agreements in a strategy critics said were attempts to stifle criticism of Trump. Carnahan last year led the state party’s effort to win Minnesota for Trump.

“(The use of NDAs) certainly wasn’t common in the federal system, beyond classified information, until the Trump Administration,” Zaid wrote by email. “And it didn’t last long because it would never hold up to constitutional scrutiny. I would expect the same for any state political entity/individuals as well. Meaning, I’d challenge it in a heartbeat.”

The Lazzaro scandal is just the latest in a string of recent problems at the Minnesota Republican Party. 

(A party spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.)

Recent campaign finance reports show that after finally digging out of yearslong debt, the party is back to being at a massive financial disadvantage going into 2022, with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party already well ahead in the money chase. 

Carnahan’s promise to send Lazzaro donations to charity will be difficult. “I don’t know how the MNGOP would give the money back,” Vujovich said, referring to fundraising problems.

It’s also unclear who is running the day-to-day operations of the party. Party operatives and activists say they believe executive director Andy Aplikowski has departed; he did not reply to requests for comment.  

The party has undergone significant turnover during Carnahan’s tenure, including several executive directors in recent years.  

The party official who spoke to the Reformer described a working environment under Carnahan that was abusive, toxic and full of paranoia, particularly as Carnahan ran for re-election as party chair. 

“She wants to use NDAs as personal protection for her to insulate her from criticism,” the party official said. “That’s not how NDAs work. She can’t insulate herself from criticism for being a bad boss.”

The party official said Carnahan would threaten people with legal action if they spoke negatively about her. 

One person, the source said, was talking to GOP activists about Carnahan’s reputation as a demanding boss who often would berate subordinates. 

“She wanted to legally go after him,” the source recalled. “She had to be told that signing an NDA for the state party means you can’t go sell your secrets to the DFL. It does not mean that he can’t talk about the fact that you were a bad boss.”

Carnahan’s results have been decidedly mixed. Despite millions of dollars spent, Trump lost here handily, and Minnesota Republicans have continued a statewide losing streak that has stretched to more than 15 years. Among the state’s eight members of the House of Representatives, four are Republican.

“Her record of success is very minimal,” said Dustin Grage, a GOP consultant. 

Former GOP state Rep. Kelly Fenton of Woodbury, who served as deputy chair for the MNGOP from 2011 to 2013, called on Carnahan to resign.

“(Carnahan) is a liability to our Party & anyone running under our banner,” Fenton tweeted, tagging Carnahan’s Twitter handle. “ 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!”

Patrick Coolican contributed to this report.

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

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