GOP donor faces trial on child sex trafficking charges


Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven “commercial sex acts” involving five minors, ages 15 and 16, in 2020 when he was 30.

This booking photo released by Sherburne County Jail shows Anton Lazzaro. The formerly well-connected Republican donor faces a court hearing in Minnesota on Tuesday, March 21, 2023 on federal charges of sex trafficking of minors. (Sherburne County Jail/Star Tribune via AP, file) AP

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A formerly well-connected Republican donor accused of serving petite, vulnerable teenage girls with cash, alcohol and gifts will face federal charges of underage sex trafficking Tuesday in court.

Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven “commercial sex acts” involving five minors, ages 15 and 16, in 2020 when he was 30. His indictment sparked a political firestorm that led to the overthrow of Jennifer Carnahan as leader of the Minnesota Republican Party.

His co-defendant Gisela Castro Medina, who formerly ran the College Republicans Chapter at the University of St. Thomas, pleaded guilty to two counts last year. She is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify against him. She faces a conviction in August.

Lazzaro denies sex trafficking allegations. He says the government targeted him for political reasons and because of his wealth.

Prosecutors say it’s simply a sex trafficking case. They have not signaled any intention to summon political figures as witnesses, nor have the defense. US District Judge Patrick Schiltz has already dismissed Lazzaro’s claims of selective prosecution.

But Lazzaro insists he is innocent and that the charges are politically motivated.

“Mr. Lazzaro believes he is being targeted by the U.S. Department of Justice for his political activities,” spokeswoman Stacy Bettison said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The unusual application of federal sex trafficking law to the facts in Mr. Lazzaro’s case supports his beliefs. He is not alone in his view that the U.S. Department of Justice is politicizing law enforcement. Many others, including many members of Congress and most recently the Senate Judiciary Committee, have recently raised legitimate and credible concerns that Attorney General (Merrick) Garland is politicizing the ministry by aggressively investigating Republicans and conservative activists like Mr. Lazzaro.”

Carnahan is the widow of US Rep. Jim Hagedorn, who died of kidney cancer in February 2022. She denied knowing of any wrongdoing by Lazzaro before the charges were unsealed in August 2021 and she condemned his alleged crimes. But his arrest fueled outrage among party activists. Allegations surfaced that she created a toxic work environment and abused non-disclosure agreements to silence her critics. She resigned a week later.

Carnahan and Lazzaro became friends when she ran unsuccessfully for a seat in Parliament in 2016. He supported her bid to become party leader in 2017 and attended her wedding to Hagedorn in 2018. They hosted a podcast together for a few months.

Lazzaro also helped run Republican Lacy Johnson’s campaign, which failed to unseat Democratic US Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2020. Images on Lazzaro’s social media accounts showed him with prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pfennig. He formed a political action committee called the Big Tent Republicans that advocated for a more inclusive party.

Lazzaro has given more than $270,000 to Republican campaigns and political committees over the years, including $42,000 to the state party organization and $31,000 to Hagedorn’s campaign. Several recipients were quick to donate these posts to charity after the indictments became public, including US Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no consequences. Emmer became Majority Whip in January.

Prosecutors alleged in their trial report earlier this month that Lazzaro conspired with Castro Medina and others to recruit 15- and 16-year-old girls to have sex with him in exchange for cash and valuable items. They met on a “sugar daddy” website in May 2020, when she was 18 and finishing high school, prosecutors wrote.

According to the briefing, Lazzaro had “a stated sexual fondness for young, tiny girls” and liked them “broken” and vulnerable — but devoid of tattoos. Prosecutors say he paid Castro Medina “well over $50,000,” including money for her tuition, her off-campus apartment and her Mini Cooper.

He often sent cars to take the girls to his luxurious penthouse apartment at the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis, prosecutors said.

“Once the girls recruited by Castro Medina arrived at Lazzaro’s home, a similar pattern followed,” the letter claims. “Lazzaro would boast about his wealth and connections. He gave the girls – small and young – liquor. Lazzaro took out stacks of cash and offered the girls exact sums of money to perform specific sexual acts with him and with each other. $100 to kiss. 400 dollars for sex. And so forth. He sent her home with cash, e-cigarettes, alcohol, Plan B, cell phones and other valuables.” Plan B is a form of emergency contraception.

Lazzaro is also the target of a lawsuit from an alleged victim who alleges he offered her and her parents $1,000 in hush money and asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.

The charges against Lazzaro, who has been detained since his arrest and was refused bail, carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a maximum potential of life imprisonment.

The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth are murky. Defense filings have referred to him as “an aspiring real estate owner and entrepreneur.” Among the items confiscated from him were a 2010 Ferrari and more than $371,000 in cash. The government put his net worth at more than $2 million in a bond report, but said its calculations didn’t include his “large,” but difficult-to-track, cryptocurrency holdings. It noted that the search turned up multiple types of foreign currency, as well as more than $500,000 worth of precious metals.

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