Sheri Auclair, a conservative activist from Wayzata, came away embittered after a vote to grant GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan more $38,000 in severance pay late Thursday. “The party is in ruins,” she said. (Photo: Kevin Featherly)
GOP chair casts deciding vote for her own severance package, resigns
Jennifer Carnahan, the controversial chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, resigned from her job Thursday after a state executive committee meeting that got hung up for hours over the terms of her severance.
At around 9 p.m. Thursday, the board voted 8-7 to grant Carnahan three months’ pay in exchange for her resignation. The package was said to be worth $38,150. According to Fox 9 reporter Theo Keith, Carnahan and her allies held out for a $100,000 payout. Others in the group refused to vote for any severance.
Carnahan herself cast the deciding vote for the compromise package after the meeting’s parliamentarian ruled that, while it is not normal procedure, she could vote as the committee’s 15th member.
“I am disgusted, absolutely disgusted,” said Sheri Auclair, a conservative activist and state central committee alternate delegate who was present at the meeting. “This party is in ruins.”
Auclair said she was a large party donor but she stopped giving money to the party a year and a half ago, when rumors began to swirl about the way Carnahan ran the party. Auclair said she is upset to know that some of her past donations will flow into Carnahan’s pockets, “because that’s the only way that she will walk away.”
Carnahan, who attended the Edina committee meeting over Zoom, issued a press release shortly after the vote. The party chair had resisted pressure all week to resign, and she expressed continuing defiance in Thursday’s post-vote news release.
In part, it reads:
“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. I am confident that a full investigation will uncover the facts and prove my innocence.”
On Twitter, however, Carnahan sounded a cheerier note after her resignation, writing:
“We’ve done much to build our party to where it is today and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished. Remember, love always wins over hate, and I can’t wait to share what is next up in my career. Stay tuned!”
Bobby Benson, the state 6th Congressional District GOP Chair and a member of the executive committee, said he understands Auclair’s sentiments. He said he refused to vote for the severance package and asked Carnahan to recuse herself from the final vote. He said she refused.
That is a bitter pill, he said, but added, “I think we are closing a chapter.”
Benson said the board passed two motions in addition to accepting Carnahan’s resignation and voting on her severance package.
It voted to hire an independent firm, possibly a law firm, to investigate various complaints and allegations involving Carnahan and her stewardship of the party. Another motion passed to scour the party’s personnel policies, find where they have failed and update them, Benson said.
A blizzard of accusations have been thrown at Carnahan since it was revealed that her close “political friend” Anton Lazzaro, a major GOP donor, was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges. Gisela Castro Medina, a 19-year-old college student, was also arrested and charged with helping Lazzaro recruit at least six underage girls for commercial sex.
Soon after that, a number of young women and students connected to the GOP came forward to alleged that Carnahan—who once hosted a podcast with Lazzaro and invited him to her wedding—had either treated them abusively herself or ignored reports of sexual harassment by others in the party.
One unidentified young woman released a harrowing statement this week through the Twitter account of Nia Moore, current chair of the Minnesota College Republicans.
It said that the young woman was “haunted” by her experience as a Minnesota GOP volunteer at age 18. She said she was told she should expect sexual harassment from her party peers because she is pretty. She also said she was pressured to “chat” with Lazzaro and was called “crazy” when she refused, because he was the party’s “biggest donor.”
There were also allegations that Carnahan leaned on five-figure hush money payments and non-disclosure agreements to muzzle critics within the party.
Former state party Executive Director Andy Aplikowski revealed Thursday that he had been pressured to sign what he called a “weaponized severance agreement.” It included a “non-disparagement” clause that ordered him to say nothing “critical, derogatory, or that might tend to injure the current and future reputation” of the party, its chair or its other officers.
In exchange, he said, he was offered a $10,000 payment, funded by political donors. He says he did not sign the agreement and did not accept the money.
Last weekend, the executive board voted to undo such non-disclosure agreements, freeing Carnahan’s critics to speak. Aplikowski was one of four former executive directors who subsequently joined a cascade of voices to call for her resignation.
“There was a lot of people that were hurt and we need to think about them first,” Benson said on Thursday. “We have some making up to do to people, and we’re going to have to fix some of this stuff. Because we’ve still got problems. They’re not going away.”
‘Needed to be done’
Sara Rasque-Michener, the state executive board’s 4th Congressional District representative, said she voted for the severance package Thursday. It was a difficult choice that left her emotionally shaken, she said, and it is one she fears she might have a difficult time explaining to her district’s constituency.
“In all honesty, it just needed to be done,” she said.
Rasque-Michener said that, had the severance package not been approved, Carnahan would not have resigned. And while she thinks there were at least 13 votes on the executive board to remove Carnahan, their vote wouldn’t have ended the story.
A subsequent state central committee meeting of more than 300 people would then have had to confirm the executive board’s decision. The soonest that meeting could have been convened is after 13 days, Rasque-Michener said, a time during which controversy and uncertainty would have continued to swirl.
Still, she said, she feels some regret that money now being used to pay Carnahan won’t be available for the investigation into harassment claims and other allegations.
Not everyone came away with bad feeling Thursday. Paul Anderson, the 5th Congressional District party chair and an executive board member, said he felt a welcome sense of closure following what he called an “energetic discussion.”
“I’m feeling good, in the sense that we came here to get something done and we did it,” he said. “Everyone spoke their mind. It was awesome, really.”
The party now has 45 days to elect a new chair, Benson said. A state central committee must be called within that time frame to choose the party’s new leader.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story indicated that former MNGOP Executive Director Andy Aplikowski accepted a $10,000 payment and signed a non-disclosure agreement as part of what he described as a “weaponized severance agreement.” In a Tweet Friday, he corrected the record, saying he never accepted the money and never signed the agreement.