Former Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan has sued the party she once led, alleging that former colleagues disparaged her in violation of a separation agreement and damaged her ability to get another job.
The Minnesota Republican Party swiftly countersued Carnahan, saying she "grossly mismanaged" the party. The state GOP is seeking to "recover the substantial damages caused by Carnahan's unlawful acts."
The legal fight comes as the Minnesota Republican Party prepares to gather in St. Cloud on Saturday to elect its leaders after a disappointing midterm election performance that saw Democrats win the governor's office and full control of the state Legislature.
State Republican leaders forced Carnahan out in Aug. 2021 amid allegations that she created a toxic workplace environment, ignored concerns about sexual harassment and retaliated against employees who didn't fall in line. Prominent Republican leaders also expressed serious concerns about Carnahan's close relationship with GOP donor Anton "Tony" Lazzaro after he was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges.
The GOP's executive board voted 8-7 to give Carnahan three months' salary as severance to leave her role. Carnahan cast the deciding vote to give herself money on the way out.
In her lawsuit, filed Thursday in Hennepin County, Carnahan claims a group of party officials who opposed her election brought "an onslaught of false claims against her" in an attempt to force her out. When she agreed to step down, she entered into a separation agreement that required party employees, officers and executive board members to refrain from disparaging her "in any respect," her lawsuit states.
Carnahan alleges that some Minnesota GOP employees disparaged her after the agreement had been signed.
"Numerous Executive Committee Members disparaged Ms. Carnahan online, engaging in an effort to re-tweet or re-send disparaging and derogatory posts about Ms. Carnahan, including posts related to her ethics, job performance as Chairwoman, and prior association with the Republican donor," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit claims Carnahan has suffered from "emotional distress and mental anguish" as a result and has not been able to find employment inside or outside politics since. She's seeking damages in excess of $50,000.
"This isn't a lawsuit about politics. It's a lawsuit about a breach of contract by Ms. Carnahan's former employer," said Matthew Schaap, her attorney. "Ms. Carnahan has been trying to move forward with her life and simply wants the contract to be followed and disparagement to cease."
In its countersuit, the Minnesota GOP said Carnahan "recklessly pursued her own interests" and had a "penchant for using party resources to purchase the silence of former party staffers through non-disclosure agreements."
The GOP's executive committee had not discussed or voted to authorize a non-disparagement agreement (NDA), yet Carnahan drafted the agreement before stepping down and purportedly had it signed by the party's interim chair, the countersuit states.
"Neither the Interim Chair nor Carnahan informed the Executive Committee that they had signed the Purported NDA," the GOP's lawsuit said. "Executive Committee members and other individuals who the agreement's language purported to bind were unaware of any purported obligations under the Purported NDA."
Carnahan refuted that claim in a separate filing, alleging that GOP attorneys prepared the separation agreement.
The Minnesota Republican Party has asked the court to render the NDA invalid and unenforceable, and to award it damages to be determined at trial.
"The Party suffered significant damage as a result of Carnahan's mismanagement and self-dealing," Mike Lonergan, the GOP's executive director, said in a statement. "While the Party would prefer to avoid costly litigation, it will vigorously defend itself against these meritless claims and pursue all available remedies."