FILE - This booking photo released by Sherburne County Jail shows Anton Lazzaro. The formerly well-connected Republican donor goes on trial in Minnesota on Tuesday, March 21, 2023, on federal charges of sex trafficking minors. (Sherburne County Jail/Star Tribune via AP, File)BY STEVE KARNOWSKI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A formerly well-connected Republican donor, accused of plying petite, vulnerable teenage girls with cash, liquor and gifts, goes on trial Tuesday on federal charges of sex trafficking minors.
Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven counts involving “commercial sex acts” with five minors ages 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30 years old. His indictment touched off a political firestorm that led to the downfall of Jennifer Carnahan as chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
His co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, who formerly led 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 sentencing in August.
Lazzaro denies the 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 intent to call political figures as witnesses, nor has the defense. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz has already rejected Lazzaro’s claims of selective prosecution.
But Lazzaro insists he’s 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 the federal sex trafficking statute 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 prosecutions. Many other individuals, 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 department by aggressively investigating Republicans and conservative activists, like Mr. Lazzaro.”
Carnahan is the widow of U.S. 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 nondisclosure agreements to silence her critics. She resigned a week later.
Carnahan and Lazzaro became friends when she ran unsuccessfully for a legislative seat in 2016. He backed her bid to become party chair in 2017 and attended her 2018 wedding to Hagedorn. They hosted a podcast together for a few months.
Lazzaro also helped run the campaign of Republican Lacy Johnson, who failed to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, in 2020. Pictures on Lazzaro’s social media accounts showed him with prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence. He founded a political action committee called Big Tent Republicans, which advocated for a more inclusive party.
Lazzaro gave 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 quickly donated those contributions to charity after the charges became public, including U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no repercussions. Emmer became majority whip in January.
Prosecutors alleged in their trial brief 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 in May 2020 on a “sugar daddy” website when she was 18 years old and finishing high school, prosecutors wrote.
According to the brief, Lazzaro had “a stated sexual preference for young, tiny girls” and liked them “broken” and vulnerable — but without 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 luxury penthouse condo at the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis, prosecutors said.
“Once the girls Castro Medina recruited arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern ensued,” the brief alleges. “Lazzaro would brag about his wealth and connections. He would give the girls — small and young — hard liquor. Lazzaro would take out stacks of cash and offer the girls precise sums of money to perform certain sex acts with him, and with each other. $100 to kiss. $400 for sex. And so forth. He would send them home with cash, vapes, alcohol, Plan B, cell phones, and other items of value.” Plan B is a form of emergency birth control.
Lazzaro is also the target of a lawsuit by one alleged victim who claims he offered $1,000 in hush money to her and her parents and asked them to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
The charges against Lazzaro, who has been jailed since his arrest and has been denied bail, carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a maximum potential of life in prison.
The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth are murky. Defense filings have called him “an up-and-coming real estate owner and entrepreneur.” Items seized from him included a 2010 Ferrari and more than $371,000 in cash. The government put his net worth in a bond report at more than $2 million but said its calculations didn’t include his “extensive” but hard-to-trace cryptocurrency holdings. It noted that the search yielded multiple types of foreign currency, plus precious metals worth more than $500,000.