A GOP donor is on trial for child sex trafficking

MINNEAPOLIS — A well-connected former Republican donor accused of pimping young, vulnerable teenage girls with ice money, liquor and gifts is on trial Tuesday on federal charges of child sex trafficking.

Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven counts involving “commercial sex acts” with five 15- and 16-year-olds in 2020, when he was 30 years old. His indictment sparked a political firestorm that led to the ouster of Jennifer Carnahan as chair of the Minnesota Republican Party.

Anton Lazzaro

His co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, who previously headed 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 allegations of sex trafficking. 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 signaled no intention to call political figures as witnesses, nor has the defence. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz has already rejected Lazzaro’s claims of selective stalking.

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 the federal sex trafficking statute to the facts of Mr. Lazzaro supports his beliefs. He is not alone in believing that the US Department of Justice is politicizing criminal prosecutions. Many other individuals, including many members of Congress and most recently the Senate Judiciary Committee, have recently expressed legitimate and credible concerns that the prosecutor 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 any wrongdoing by Lazzaro before the charges were unsealed in August 2021 and condemned his alleged crimes. But his arrest fueled outrage among party activists. Allegations surfaced that she created a toxic work environment and abused confidentiality 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 chairman in 2017 and attended her 2018 wedding to Hagedorn. They hosted a podcast together for several months.

Lazzaro also helped manage 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 the 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 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 repercussions. Emmer became majority whip in January.

Prosecutors alleged in the 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 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 brief, Lazzaro had “a stated sexual preference for young and small girls” and liked them “broken” and vulnerable – but without tattoos. Prosecutors say he paid Castro Medina “well over $50,000,” including money for tuition, her off-campus apartment and Mini Cooper.

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

“Once the girls Castro Medina recruited arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern followed,” the filing claims. “Lazzaro would brag about his wealth and connections. He gave the girls – small and young – strong drink. Lazzaro would pull out wads of cash and offer the girls precise amounts of money to perform certain sexual acts with him and each other. $100 kiss. $400 for sex. And so on. He would send them home with ice money, 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 from an alleged victim who claims he offered her and her parents $1,000 in cash and asked them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

The charges against Lazzaro, who has been jailed since his arrest and denied bail, carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a potential maximum of life in prison.

The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth are murky. Defense filings called him “an up-and-coming real estate owner and entrepreneur.” Among the items seized from him was 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 did not include his “extensive” but hard-to-trace holdings. He noted that the search turned up several types of foreign currency, plus more than $500,000 worth of precious metals.

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