MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A once-well-connected Republican donor accused of pimping tiny, vulnerable teenage girls with cash, booze and gifts is set to go on trial Tuesday on federal charges of sex trafficking to minors.
Anton “Tony” Lazzaro was indicted on seven counts related to “commercial sexual acts” with five minors aged 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30 years old. His indictment caused a political firestorm that led to the downfall of Jennifer Carnahan as chair of the Minnesota Republican Party.
His co-accused, Gisela Castro Medina, who previously headed the Republican Department at the University of St. Thomas, pleaded guilty to two counts last year. She is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify against him. She is due to be sentenced in August.
Lazzaro denies the allegations of human trafficking. He says the government targeted him for political reasons and because of his wealth.
Prosecutors say it’s just a sex-trafficking case. They did not indicate their intention to call political figures as witnesses, and neither did the defense. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz has already rejected 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 because of his political activities,” spokeswoman Stacy Bettison said in a statement to The Associated Press. “The unusual application of federal human trafficking law to the facts of Mr. Lazzaro’s case supports his beliefs. He is not alone. in his view that the US Department of Justice is politicizing prosecutions Many other individuals, including many members of Congress and most recently the Senate Judiciary Committee, have recently expressed 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 allegations came to light in August 2021, and denounced his alleged crimes. But his arrest sparked outrage among party activists. There have been accusations 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 legislative seat in 2016. He supported her bid to become party chairman in 2017 and attended her wedding to Hagedorn in 2018. They hosted a podcast together for several months.
Lazzaro also helped run Republican Lacy Johnson’s campaign, which failed to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2020. Pictures on Lazzaro’s social media accounts show him with prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike Pence . He founded a political action committee called the Big Tent Republicans, which pushed 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 quickly donated those contributions to charity after the allegations became public, including U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no consequences. Emmer became majority whip in January.
Prosecutors alleged in their trial filing 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 valuables. They met in May 2020 on a “sugar daddy” website when she was 18 and a high school graduate, prosecutors wrote.
According to the report, Lazzaro had a “stated sexual preference for young, tiny girls” and liked them to be “broken” and vulnerable – but without tattoos. Prosecutors say he paid Castro Medina “more than $50,000,” including money for her college tuition, her off-campus apartment and her Mini Cooper.
He often sent cars to take the girls to his luxury penthouse apartment at the Ivy Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, prosecutors said.
“When the girls recruited by Castro Medina arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern followed,” the filing states. “Lazzaro would brag about his wealth and connections. He gave the girls – small and young – strong drinks. Lazzaro would take out wads of cash and offer girls precise sums of money to perform certain sexual acts with him and each other. $100 for a kiss. $400 for sex. And so on. He would send them home with cash, vapes, alcohol, plan B, cell phones and other valuables.” Plan B is a form of emergency birth control.
Lazzaro is also the target of a lawsuit by an alleged victim who claims he offered her and her parents $1,000 in secret money and asked them to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
The charges against Lazzaro, who has been in jail since his arrest and has been denied bail, carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a possible maximum of life in prison.
The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth are murky. In defense filings, he was called an “up-and-coming real estate owner and entrepreneur.” Among the items seized 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 did not include his “extensive” but hard-to-trace cryptocurrency holdings. He notes that the search yielded multiple types of foreign currency, plus more than $500,000 worth of precious metals.