How the Minnesota GOP imploded: From a toxic workplace to a full-blown sex trafficking scandal

Staffers complained of a "sickness" inside the state's Republican Party. No one did anything — and it spread

Published August 27, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Sun Country Airlines hangar in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Sun Country Airlines hangar in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Kayla Khang remembers being excited for her first real job — a political internship with the Minnesota Republican Party, in 2017, organizing routine door knocking and phone bank campaigns for candidates she believed in.

It was the dawn of a new era for the party, the 17-year-old thought, and she was ecstatic when the internship turned into a paid position just a few months later. Jennifer Carnahan, another Asian-American woman, had just been elected as state party chair with promises to diversify and bring new blood to the organization, which had floundered in recent years due to financial mismanagement and a rising Democratic tide buoyed by growing numbers of young liberals moving to the state. 

But as she advanced in the party, Khang grew increasingly uncomfortable with the casual racism and sexual harassment which seemed to penetrate all levels of the organization. Seemingly as a matter of course, she was warned which men to avoid being alone with, and which to avoid entirely.

Things reached a head when she began working on a competitive special Senate campaign in northern Minnesota with Spencer Krier, one of Carnahan's close associates, a fellow field staffer at the time. He often greeted her by adopting a faux-Asian accent: "Herro Kay-rah," forcing hugs and touching her inappropriately even though Khang told him several times the behavior made her uncomfortable.

During an election night party, she remembered Krier making an especially egregious remark about the dress she was wearing: "You look chinky today," he allegedly said with a grin. 

"What?!" he continued, faking surprise at her outrage. "It just means you look really Asian."

Several others who witnessed these events and spoke with Salon corroborated Khang's accounts, and described similar conduct from Krier, who would go on to become "operations manager" for the state party before sliding into a job with Arsenal Media Group, a political media strategy firm which boasts such clients as Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec and right-wing commentator Candace Owens. (UPDATE: Arsenal Media Group confirmed that Krier is no longer an employee at the company)

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Khang said she reported the incidents multiple times to her bosses — and to Carnahan's assistant — but each time they brushed it off, saying, "That's just Spencer." After several tries, she gave up, and to her knowledge a formal complaint was never recorded.

Krier did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

But in the coming months, Khang says Carnahan grew increasingly angry at her and others who spoke up about similar behavior, screaming at them in public and calling them after-hours to continue earlier tirades. Several other Minnesota GOP employees told Salon that they witnessed Carnahan repeatedly dress down Khang and other employees for minor mistakes, and speculated that she may have been driving them away from a career in politics for complaining about the behavior of Krier and others.

"She was very good at belittling people, insulting them in really personal ways," Khang said. "She'd always threaten people — 'I can end your career in a second' — stuff like that.

"She just made you feel so small, you know?"

Khang eventually did leave politics, and the state.

Former Minnesota GOP staff member Kayla Khang, left, with former Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan. Former Minnesota GOP staff member Kayla Khang, left, with former Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan. (Courtesy of Kayla Khang)

In conversations with seven current and former staffers of the Minnesota Republican Party, most of them women who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, all shared similar experiences of racism and sexual harassment or assault by high-level employees of the state organization. 

Likewise, all outlined a pattern of reprisal from Carnahan targeting anyone who spoke out about these and other issues within the organization, subjecting employees and even some activists affiliated with the party to repeated verbal abuse. Strict non-disclosure agreements were also a requirement for anyone who wanted to work closely with Carnahan, a fact she used as a cudgel to silence dissent, several of the employees said. 

Two former staffers even described sustained harassment campaigns directed against them and others that included male staffers showing up at their homes at odd hours — an apparent intimidation tactic — and drastic measures like withholding paychecks for anyone who complained about Carnahan or her top lieutenants' behavior.

"I remember this so vividly — I had to drive across town with my supervisor to fill up another staffer's tank because she hadn't been paid in months after some kind of dispute with Jennifer," Khang said. "She was completely broke."

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The employees who spoke with Salon all said the toxic work environment was so bad that dozens of talented people were driven out of politics for good.

"I know a staggering number of people who left politics as a result of Jennifer Carnahan," Khang said.

"There's no bench of [Republican] talent in Minnesota right now, and it's 100% her fault," another former Minnesota GOP staffer added.

The four most recent Minnesota GOP executive directors — Becky Alery, Andy Aplikowski, Christine Snell and Kevin Poindexter — even took the rare step of releasing a joint statement last week which substantiated a number of these claims. In the lengthy letter, all four decried Carnahan's behavior as head of the state party, describing a workplace "ruled by grudges, retaliation, and intimidation."

The state's College Republicans chapter also released a statement last week alleging that Carnahan covered up the sexual assault and rape of a member of the Republican youth organization — choosing not to act when the accusations were brought to her attention and maintaining a public friendship with the accused even after he left his job in politics.

"Jennifer Carnahan is no advocate or example for young women," the organization wrote.

Carnahan declined to comment on this story through a spokesperson, but the state party ultimately released a statement rebutting a number of the claims, claiming Carnahan was the victim of a politically motivated attack by her opponents within the organization.

"The statements that the Chairwoman had any knowledge of sexual harassment allegations are categorically false," the statement said. "This is just the latest in unfounded accusations against the Chairwoman in recent days for those in the party that hoped to unseat her in her re-election on April 10."

These Republican party employees and insiders are speaking out now after Carnahan stepped down last Thursday, following a sordid sex trafficking scandal that threatens to hobble the party apparatus for years to come. 

"It's clear to me how individuals feel more comfortable coming forward simply because they didn't have the ability to do so before," Rebecca Brannon, a party insider-turned-independent journalist who has been probing Carnahan's alleged misdeeds for months, wrote on Twitter. "This has been a sickness for a long time within the MN GOP."

Anton Lazzaro, one of the state party's top donors and a close personal friend of Carnahan's, was indicted for child sex trafficking — alongside a rising College Republican star, Gisela Castro Medina, who chaired the University of St. Thomas College Republicans. Federal prosecutors allege the pair recruited and abused at least five minor victims in a scheme Carnahan maintains she knew nothing about.

All the former Minnesota GOP employees who spoke with Salon expressed incredulity at Carnahan's claims of ignorance. "It's not that she missed the signs," one former Minnesota GOP staff member said. "It's that she totally ignored them, even after people brought their concerns to her attention."

Now Republican leaders across the country are struggling to figure out a path forward to rebuild the state organization from the bottom up.

"The party is in ruins," Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota GOP, told Politico last week. "I don't know if the party has hit rock bottom yet."

*  *  *

The first impression shared by almost everyone in Minnesota politics who met Anton Lazzaro was how young he was. The second thing they noticed was his money.

The 30-year-old flaunted his lavish lifestyle on social media: driving a Ferrari, jetting to tropical locales and often posing for pictures with large wads of cash. He even took a jaunt to Ukraine late last year, apparently on a private plane, to "investigate" Hunter Biden's dealings in the country. It's unclear whether Lazzaro ever connected with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was Donald Trump's personal attorney at the time and visited Ukraine for the same reason in the same time period. 

Anthony Lazzaro flaunted his playboy lifestyle on social media, posting pictures with large amounts of cash.Antony Lazzaro flaunted his playboy lifestyle on social media, posting pictures with large amounts of cash. (Instagram)

The source of Lazzaro's wealth was unclear to everyone who spoke with Salon for this story, and was a constant source of speculation for state party insiders. The only information about his family Salon was able to uncover was that his grandfather was a longtime administrator at the University of Southern California, who transformed the school into a "sprawling bastion of research" over his 42-year tenure, according to an obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

"From the very beginning, everyone was like, 'Who is this guy?'" Khang said of Lazzaro. "I met him when he was 26 and throwing around thousands of dollars on state-level races. ... We all wanted to know how he amassed that kind of money so early in his career."

Lazzaro has indeed been a prolific donor to the party since at least 2014, donating more than $100,000 to various Republican candidates  — including more than $30,000 to Carnahan's husband, Rep. Jim Hagedorn, according to campaign finance filings.

One analysis from local TV station Fox 9 estimates that Lazzaro has given $273,000 to Minnesota GOP candidates and causes. He spent so much, so regularly, that several Minnesota GOP staffers said they called him "sugar daddy" and referred to him as the party's "cash cow" behind his back. All they knew about his finances was that he talked often about Bitcoin.

"I had a bad feeling about him from the start," one former Minnesota GOP employee said. "We all thought something shady was going on."

On FEC disclosure forms, Lazzaro always lists his occupation as "self employed." On his LinkedIn page, however, Lazzaro says he has a job: CEO of a consulting firm called Gold River Group, which claims to provide marketing and technology solutions to firms in a dizzying array of economic sectors: "We specialize in the Securities, Family Office, Energy, and Political industries," the page says.

Salon could not determine if Lazzaro's business has a physical office — the Minnesota address listed on Gold River Group's state registration is a post office box in a downtown Minneapolis UPS store. A second address in Cheyenne, Wyoming, found on GRG's website, appears to belong to a company called Wyoming Registered Agent, which helps businesses incorporate and provides mail forwarding services. A third address in Rolling Hills Estates, California, listed on the firm's website as its preferred "postal address," is yet another mailbox at yet another UPS store. The company's phone number, meanwhile, appears to be Lazzaro's personal cell, which has a voicemail message telling callers to text because the inbox is "not checked regularly."

In other words, whatever Lazzaro's company actually does, it seems implausible that it provided him with the hundreds of thousands of dollars he has spent in Minnesota politics over the last decade or so — let alone on a Ferrari, private flights and the nearly $1 million luxury condo that property records show he owned in downtown Minneapolis. Gold River Group, in fact, was only incorporated in December of 2019, according to state records obtained by Salon, well after staffers say Carnahan brought him into the party's inner circle following her election to party chair in 2016.

"She brought him around. It sounds like he gave some money before [2016] but he never had any kind of position or influence," a high-level former GOP staffer told Salon. "That all changed when [Carnahan] became chair."

Financial records first reported by Fox 9 show that Lazzaro has a pattern of starting and sometimes dissolving businesses — at least eight of them in rapid succession over the past 13 years. Many of these ventures appear to only exist on paper.

They include two apparent currency brokerages, (which one reviewer on the now-defunct website said "feels like a scam") and Forex Globe LLC; an online publisher called Wolf Private Trading LLC; an advertising agency called Allegiance American Enterprises LLC; and three marketing firms, 777 Marketing Group, 21st Promotional Offers LLC and Wingate Marketing Group LLC.

At least three of those businesses were registered using P.O. boxes at UPS stores in California.

In 2018 Lazzaro also founded a largely self-funded organization called Big Tent Republicans PAC — a reference to his stated goal of making the party more inclusive for minorities, women and the LGBT community. Through it, he's given more than $22,000 to other political committees in several other states, according to FEC records. 

In 2019, he even managed to snag a job as campaign manager for Minnesota congressional candidate Lacy Johnson, who ran against Rep. Ilhan Omar in her heavily Democratic Minneapolis-area district (and lost).

Johnson denied any knowledge of Lazzaro's extracurricular activities, telling The Daily Beast, "I don't know that side of Tony. He's young, he's got money, and… that tends to attract females."

At the time, Lazzaro also hosted a podcast with Carnahan called "#TruthMatters," which ran for about four months in. late 2019 and early 2020. He used his newfound platform to make several appearances as a talking head on Fox News. It was a stunning rise for someone who just a few years prior was a complete unknown in Minnesota politics, party insiders said. 

*  *  *

But employees also describe a dark side to Lazzaro's sudden ubiquity within the state party.

One former GOP employee who requested anonymity for fear of professional retaliation described a situation where they were trying to correct a clerical error in the organization's payroll system and were told by a supervisor to speak with Lazzaro — who did not have an official position within the party, let alone one that would afford him access to employees' personal information. 

Another employee recalled speaking with Lazzaro about payroll issues as well, though they did not remember that fact as unusual, given the close-knit culture of the party apparatus and his constant presence at high-level meetings. 

Everyone who spoke with Salon recalled Lazzaro's nebulous role as a source of endless gossip within the Minnesota GOP, from innocuous speculation to the salacious.

One incident that continues to create waves within the party and was mentioned repeatedly in interviews concerned an anonymous Twitter account that began posting in late 2019, claiming to be a high-level party insider with knowledge of Lazzaro's nefarious activities. 

Salon was unable to find the Twitter account, and everyone who spoke about the incident said it was deleted shortly after it was created. Still, at least four people close to the party described the page tweeting out a variety of accusations, including that Lazzaro was filming porn in a luxury condo he owned at a swanky downtown building called The Ivy in Minneapolis. 

All four of those people also recalled the firestorm that was created when Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan found out about the account — within hours a full scale internal investigation was launched into the source of the rumors, quickly becoming "priority No. 1" for the Minnesota GOP office, as one former staffer put it.

The account was shut down a few days later, and apparently nothing ever came of the internal investigation. But the staffers describe a situation where the accusations were, because of the voraciousness of Carnahan's response, generally accepted as true among party insiders.

"That's always how I explained [Lazzaro's] money in my head," one staffer said. 

Several women who spoke with Salon described this incident as the beginning of a rumor network to warn other female GOP staffers — especially younger employees and volunteers — to stay away from Lazzaro and other men who were rumored to have assaulted or harassed their female counterparts.

Brannon, the conservative activist, says there's little chance Carnahan wasn't at least aware of these rumors. "There is no chance the chairwoman didn't at minimum know of Anton's lifestyle," she said.

After these accusations came to light, several Minnesota GOP staffers also remembered previous incidents that had seemed innocuous, but were now cast in an entirely different light. Two former Minnesota GOP employees, offered anonymity to protect their personal safety, described visiting Lazzaro's home on routine business and finding hidden cameras set up in multiple rooms — including a bathroom. 

"I feel fucking horrible about it now, but I let my family — my younger siblings — around this guy," one former colleague, who said she discovered the camera in Lazzaro's bathroom, said. "I personally believe [Carnahan] 100% knew what a creep he was."

In fact, the network of cameras Lazzaro kept in his condo was described in court this week by a private investigator Lazzaro hired, who argued that the cameras made the property perfect for home confinement — all Lazzaro had to do was give the state access to a live feed of the devices for 24/7 monitoring. The judge disagreed, calling it a way for Lazzaro to skirt punishment in a "prison of privilege."

During that same court hearing Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino asked one of Lazzaro's character witnesses if they were aware that Lazzaro was running a Pornhub account called "Only Young Teens," according to an account from Minnesota Reformer, a local news site.

It was the first mention in court documents of any pornographic activity from the 30-year-old, who is accused of paying teenage girls with gifts, cash and lavish dinners in exchange for sex. His official charges include six counts of sex trafficking, three counts of obstruction and one count of conspiracy to sex-traffic minors.

It's unclear whether the allegations Lazzaro was making porn will become a part of the case — though the FBI's Minneapolis bureau says the investigation is still ongoing and that the agency anticipates more victims may come forward.

Reached for comment Thursday, Lazzaro's Texas-based attorney, Zachary Newland, specifically denied any allegations of child pornography.

"Mr. Lazzaro is not charged in any way shape or form with producing or possessing child pornography. Any assertion that Mr. Lazzaro was involved with child pornography is blatantly false. Even the overreaching indictment against Mr. Lazzaro does not make those sort of claims. The facts and truth leave nothing up for debate. Mr. Lazzaro looks forward to clearing his good name and shining the light on these false anonymous allegations in court."

An officer with the Minneapolis Police Department, Brandon Brugger, said during Tuesday's court hearing that investigators have not discovered any child pornography on any of Lazzaro's devices, records show. Brugger made no mention of any pornography that featured adults. 

*  *  *

Just a year ago, Republicans in Minnesota looked as if they were on the upswing. Even though the party hadn't won a statewide race in 15 years, Donald Trump spent millions on advertising and repeatedly campaigned there, following a surprising performance in 2016, when he only lost narrowly to Hillary Clinton. 

But Joe Biden did exceptionally well in Minnesota in 2020, winning by more than seven percentage points. Now, a burgeoning sex trafficking scandal has left the organization, which is without leadership until a new election can be held, in total disarray, insiders say. It also doesn't help that the most recognizable Republican in Minnesota at the moment is pillow salesman-turned-election truther Mike Lindell

And despite the near-unanimous calls for Carnahan's resignation last week, the Republican Party of Minnesota is not united on how to move forward from the scandal. 

Carnahan made as much noise as possible on the way out, loudly trumpeting her innocence while casting the deciding vote to give herself a severance of more than $35,000. She described herself as the victim of a "coup," led by a "mob mentality" that she said sought to "defame, tarnish and attempt to ruin my personal and professional reputation."

"The party and its leaders cannot be held responsible for donors and unofficial persons," she wrote on Facebook prior to her resignation, denying any knowledge of Lazzaro's alleged illicit activities. "We cannot be expected to know more than law enforcement."

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.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. (Getty Images)

It's unclear what impact all this will have on the party's fundraising and recruitment efforts. Everyone who spoke with Salon worried that donors would be hesitant to give and potential employees will be even more hesitant to work at the organization following the scandal and investigations that are sure to follow.

Many high-level Minnesota GOP staffers, including the four former state chairs, are calling for third-party audits into both the accusations of rampant sexual misconduct and the state organization's finances.

Jennifer DeJournett, a Minnesota Republican insider and president of the organization Voices of Conservative Women, echoed those calls in a statement to Politico last week, later adding that, scandal or not, "the operation of politics [in the state] doesn't stop."

"There's a ton of alphabet soup groups out there that are still doing the work to help push causes and candidates … Politics doesn't stop while the state party is getting its act together."

But in the meantime, Carnahan doesn't appear any closer to an apology — posting defiantly on Facebook that she, Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh have "much in common."

"I'm proud to stand in good company among men that have experienced what I have recently gone through (although what they went through was way worse)," she wrote, alongside pictures of herself with both men.

"The truth always prevails, the universe will right the wrongs and bad people only get away with bad actions for so long. It's time to 'stand in the sun.'"

By Brett Bachman

Brett Bachman was the Nights/Weekend Editor at Salon.

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