MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A formerly well-connected Republican donor accused of grooming tiny and vulnerable teenage girls with money, liquor and gifts will go on trial Tuesday on federal child sex trafficking charges.
Anton “Tony” Lazzaro faces seven counts involving “commercial sexual acts” with five minors ages 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30 years old. His indictment set off a political storm that led to the downfall of Jennifer Carnahan as chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
His co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, who formerly led the University Republican 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 risks being 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 case of sex trafficking. They signaled no intention to call political figures witnesses, nor did the defense. U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz has previously dismissed Lazarus’ claims about selective charging.
But Lazzaro insists he is innocent and that 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 factual application of federal sex trafficking law in Mr. Lazarus’ case supports his beliefs. He’s not alone in his belief that the US Department of Justice is politicizing prosecutions. Many other people, including many Members of Congress and more recently of 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, such as Mr. Lazarus.
Carnahan is the widow of U.S. Representative Jim Hagedorn, who died of kidney cancer in February 2022. She denied knowledge of any wrongdoing by Lazarus before the allegations were unveiled in August 2021, and condemned his alleged crimes . But her arrest has fueled outrage among party activists. Allegations have surfaced that she created a toxic work environment and that she abused NDAs 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 2018 wedding to Hagedorn. They hosted a podcast together for a few months.
Lazarus also helped lead the campaign of Republican Lacy Johnson, who failed to unseat Democratic US Representative Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota, in 2020. Pictures on Lazarus’ 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 a more inclusive party.
Lazarus has donated 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 the Hagedorn 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 was unaffected. Emmer became Majority Leader in January.
Prosecutors said 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 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, petite girls” and liked them “broken” and vulnerable — but without tattoos. off-campus apartment and his Mini Cooper.
He often sent cars to take the girls to his luxurious penthouse at the Ivy Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, prosecutors said.
“Once the girls Castro Medina recruited arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern ensued,” the brief claims. “Lazzaro boasted of his wealth and connections. He would give the girls-little and young-hard liquor. Lazarus took out piles of money and offered the girls precise sums of money to perform certain sexual acts with him and with each other. 100 bucks to kiss. $400 for sex. And so on. He sent them home with cash, vapes, booze, Plan Bs, cell phones, and other valuables. Plan B is a form of emergency birth control.
Lazarus is also the target of a lawsuit filed by an alleged victim who says he offered $1,000 in hidden money to her and her parents and asked them to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
The charges against Lazzaro, who has been jailed since his arrest and denied bail, carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a maximum potential of life in prison.
The sources of Lazarus’ wealth are obscure. Defense documents called him “an up-and-coming real estate owner and entrepreneur.” Items seized included a 2010 Ferrari and more than $371,000 in cash. he said his calculations didn’t include his “vast” but hard-to-trace holdings in cryptocurrencies. He noted that the search yielded several types of foreign currency, as well as precious metals worth more than $500,000.