She Resigned Over Links to an Alleged Sex Trafficker. Now She’s Running for Congress.

Former Minnesota GOP chair Jennifer Carnahan resigned last summer after one of her closest allies was arrested for allegations of sex trafficking minors.
Cameron Joseph
Washington, US
an individual praying on them as they sleep
Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan at a rally for President Donald Trump at the Bemidji Regional Airport on September 18, 2020 in Bemidji, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Jennifer Carnahan was forced to step down from chairing the Minnesota Republican Party last year because of her close ties to a donor who was arrested on federal sex trafficking charges. Now, she’s looking for a promotion.

Carnahan announced Monday that she would run for Congress, seeking the seat that was held by her husband, Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, until he died of cancer last month.

“Though my heart is still heavy after Jim’s passing, the encouragement I have received from throughout southern Minnesota has inspired me to carry on his legacy by running to complete the remainder of his term,” she said in a Monday statement. “Like President Trump, I am a businesswoman and fighter. Here in Minnesota, I disrupted the status quo and brought the Republican Party back to relevance.”

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But that’s not Carnahan’s full legacy at the state Republican Party. She was forced to resign last summer after one of her closest allies in the GOP was arrested for allegations of sex trafficking minors. She also faced accusations of creating a toxic work environment at the state GOP, leading multiple Republican officials to call for her to resign.

Last August, Anton Lazzaro was arrested and charged with 10 federal sex trafficking charges for allegedly recruiting six minor victims “to engage in commercial sex.” Lazzaro, 30, is accused of working with a 19-year-old head of a local chapter of the Minnesota College Republicans to recruit girls who were under 18 for sex acts. He’s been held in prison since then.

Carnahan and Lazzaro were close: He’d worked hard to get her elected chair of the party in 2017, and he became a major donor to the state GOP during her tenure. And they co-hosted a podcast.

Carnahan insisted she had no idea about Lazzaro’s alleged activities until she found out about it on the news, said she hoped “justice will be served, and he will spend the rest of his life in prison,” and accused her opponents of having a “mob mentality” in pushing for her ouster. She eventually agreed to step down after the state party agreed to give her $38,000 in severance pay—a payout she reportedly cast the tie-breaking vote to approve. 

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“A donor did some bad things which I condemned immediately. The question no one seems to ask is why I was singled out, despite other Republican candidates, organizations, and national leaders from Minnesota also having accepted thousands of dollars of his contributions,” Carnahan told VICE News in a statement when asked about Lazzaro. “There is clearly a double standard at play here. It’s time to move on.”

Lazzaro has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer is seeking to dismiss the sex trafficking charges by arguing that the girls were 16 years and older and claiming his relationships with the girls were consensual.

“Never has the government gone after a 29-year-old engaging in consensual relationships with young women for sex trafficking based on the theory that giving gifts (admittedly expensive ones) to his dates amounted to a commercial sex act. The prosecution of Mr. Lazzaro is unprecedented in this sense and certainly a first in this district,” Lazzaro’s attorney wrote in a late-January motion to dismiss the charges.

Another lawsuit alleges that Lazzaro offered one victim and her father $1,000 to sign a nondisclosure agreement, an offer they turned down, according to the local NBC affiliate.

It’s unclear from her statement whether Carnahan also plans to run for a full term in office. There will be a May primary and an August general election to fill the remainder of Hagedorn’s term, then a normal election for 2022. There are already more than a half-dozen GOP candidates in the race. 

The rural southern Minnesota district leans Republican—Trump won it by 10 points in 2020—and the national political environment is bad for Democrats. It’s likely to stay in GOP hands, though Democrats are hopeful that if the GOP nominates a flawed candidate, they might be able to compete.

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