GOP donor faces lawsuit for sex trafficking of minors


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

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

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A well-connected former Republican donor accused of providing cash, alcohol and gifts to vulnerable teenage girls is on trial Tuesday on federal charges of underage sex trafficking.

Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven counts of “commercial sex acts” with five minors aged 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30. His indictment sparked a political storm that led to Jennifer Carnahan’s downfall as president of the Minnesota Republican Party.

His co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, who previously 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 is likely to be sentenced 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 is simply a sex trafficking case. They signaled no intention to call political figures as witnesses, nor did the defense. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz has already dismissed Lazzaro’s selective prosecution claims.

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

“Mr. Lazzaro believes he is being targeted by the United States 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 confirms his beliefs. He’s not alone in thinking the US Department of Justice is politicizing prosecutions. Many others, including numerous 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. Representative Jim Hagedorn, who died of kidney cancer in February 2022. She denied knowing of any wrongdoing by Lazzaro before the charges were uncovered in August 2021, and she condemned his crimes presumed. But his arrest sparked outrage among party activists. Allegations surfaced that she created a toxic work environment and abused non-disclosure agreements to silence 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 chair in 2017 and attended her 2018 wedding to Hagedorn. They hosted a podcast together for a few months.

Lazzaro also helped lead Republican Lacy Johnson’s campaign, which failed to unseat Democratic U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2020. Photos on Lazzaro’s social media accounts showed him with prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump and former Vice President Mike. Penny. He founded a political action committee called Big Tent Republicans, which 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 those contributions to charity after the charges became public, including U.S. Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no repercussions. Emmer became majority whip in January.

Prosecutors alleged in their 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 money and valuables. They met in May 2020 on a “sugar daddy” website when she was 18 and finishing high school, prosecutors wrote.

According to the memoir, Lazzaro had “a stated sexual preference for tiny young girls” and liked them “broken” and vulnerable — but without tattoos. Prosecutors say he paid Castro Medina “well over $50,000,” including money for his tuition, off-campus apartment and Mini Cooper.

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

“Once the girls recruited by Castro Medina arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern ensued,” the memoir claims. “Lazzaro boasted of his wealth and connections. He gave the girls—small and young—hard liquor. Lazzaro would pull out stacks of money and offer the girls specific amounts of money to perform certain sexual acts with him and with each other. $100 to kiss. $400 for sex. And so on. He would send them home with money, vapes, booze, plan B, cell phones and other valuables. Plan B is a form of emergency contraception.

Lazzaro is also the target of a lawsuit filed by an alleged victim who claims he offered $1,000 in silent 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 potential maximum of life in prison.

The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth are obscure. Defense documents called him a “promising property owner and entrepreneur”. Items seized from him included a 2010 Ferrari and more than $371,000 in cash. The government estimated his net worth in a bond report at more than $2 million, but said its calculations did not include his “extensive” but hard-to-trace cryptocurrency holdings. He noted that the search revealed several types of foreign currency, as well as precious metals worth more than $500,000.

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