MINNEAPOLIS – A well-connected former Republican donor accused of abusing frail, vulnerable teenage girls with cash, booze and gifts is due Tuesday on federal charges of underage sex trafficking.
Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven counts of “commercial sex acts” with five minors ages 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30 years old. His charges sparked a political storm that led to the demise of Jennifer Carnahan as chairman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
His co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, who formerly headed the College Republicans chapter at the University of St. Thomas, pleaded guilty to two charges last year. She is cooperating with prosecutors and will testify against him. She risks her sentence in August.
READ MORE: Anton Lazzaro will remain in jail until his trial for allegations that he paid underage victims for sex, the judge rules
Lazzaro denies the sex trafficking allegations. He says the government targeted him for political reasons and because of his wealth.
Prosecutors say it’s just sex trafficking. They have not expressed any intention to call political figures as witnesses, nor have 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. Justice Department 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 believing that the U.S. Justice Department is politicizing prosecutions. Many other individuals, including many members of Congress and most recently the Senate Judiciary Committee has recently raised legitimate and credible concerns that Attorney General (Merrick) Garland is politicizing the department by aggressively investigating Republicans and conservative activists, such as 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 unsealed in August 2021, and condemned his alleged crimes. But his arrest sparked outrage among party activists. Allegations surfaced that she had created a toxic work environment and abused confidentiality agreements to silence her critics. She resigned a week later.
Carnahan and Lazzaro became friends when she unsuccessfully ran 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 a few months.
Lazzaro also helped lead the campaign of Republican Lacy Johnson, who failed to unseat Democratic U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2020. pennies. 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 allegations became public, including U.S. Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no repercussions. Emmer became the majority whip in January.
Prosecutors alleged in their lawsuit 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 on a “sugar daddy” website in May 2020 when she was 18 years old and finishing high school, prosecutors wrote.
According to the assignment, Lazzaro had “a distinct sexual preference for young, little girls” and found them “broken” and vulnerable – but without tattoos. Prosecutors say he paid Castro Medina “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 apartment at the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis, prosecutors said.
“When the girls Castro Medina recruited arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern followed,” the letter claims. “Lazzaro would brag about his wealth and connections. He would give the girls – small and young – liquor. Lazzaro would pull out piles of cash and offer the girls precise sums of money to perform certain sexual acts on him and each other. $100 for kisses. $400 for sex. And so on. He’d send them home with cash, vaping, alcohol, plan B, cell phones, and other valuables.” Plan B is a form of emergency contraception.
Lazzaro is also the target of a lawsuit by an alleged victim who claims 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 in prison since his arrest and has been denied bail, include mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a maximum possibility of life in prison.
The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth are murky. Defense records 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 estimated his net worth at more than $2 million in a bond report, but said the calculations did not take into account his “extensive” but hard-to-trace cryptocurrency holdings. It noted that the search turned up multiple types of foreign currency, plus precious metals worth more than $500,000.