Republican donor faces trial on child sex trafficking charges

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MINNEAPOLIS — A formerly well-connected Republican donor accused of harassing vulnerable young teens with cash, liquor and gifts will go on trial Tuesday on federal child sex trafficking charges.

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

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 her. She faces sentencing in August.

Lazzaro denies the allegations of sex trafficking. He says the government attacked him for political reasons and because of his wealth.

Prosecutors say it is simply a case of sex trafficking. They have not signaled any intention to call political figures as witnesses, nor has the defense. US District Judge Patrick Schiltz has already rejected Lazzaro’s claims of selective prosecution.

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

“Mr. Lazzaro believes that he is under attack by the US 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 in Mr. Lazzaro’s case supports his beliefs. He is not alone in his view that the US Department of Justice is politicizing prosecutions. Many others, including many members of Congress and, more recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee, have 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 US Representative Jim Hagedorn, who died of kidney cancer in February 2022. She denied knowledge of any wrongdoing by Lazzaro before the charges were unsealed in August 2021, and condemned his alleged crimes. But her arrest sparked outrage among party activists. Allegations arose that she created a toxic work environment and abused confidentiality agreements to silence critics of her. She quit 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 run the campaign of Republican Lacy Johnson, who failed to unseat Democratic US Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota in 2020. Images 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 donated more than $270,000 to Republican political campaigns and committees over the years, including $42,000 to the party’s statewide organization and $31,000 to Hagedorn’s campaign. Several recipients quickly donated those contributions to charities after the charges became public, including US Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no repercussions. Emmer became majority leader in January.

Prosecutors alleged 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 cash and valuable items. 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 declared sexual preference for young, little girls” and liked them “broken” and vulnerable, but without tattoos. Prosecutors say he paid Castro Medina “more than $50,000,” including money for her tuition, his off-campus apartment and his Mini Cooper.

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

“Once the girls that Castro Medina recruited arrived at Lazzaro’s apartment, a similar pattern occurred,” the letter alleges. “Lazzaro bragged about his wealth and connections. He would give the girls, small and young, hard liquor. Lazzaro would take out loads of cash and offer the girls precise sums of money to perform certain sexual acts on him and on each other. $100 to kiss. $400 per sex. Etc. He would send them home with cash, vaporizers, alcohol, Plan B, cell phones, and other valuables.” Plan B is a form of emergency birth control.

Lazzaro is also the subject of a lawsuit from an alleged victim who claims he offered them $1,000 in money to keep her and her parents quiet and asked them to sign a confidentiality agreement.

The charges against Lazzaro, who has been incarcerated 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 documents have called him “an up-and-coming real estate owner and businessman.” Items seized from him included 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 his calculations did not include his “extensive” but hard-to-trace cryptocurrency holdings. He noted that the search turned up multiple types of foreign currency, as well as more than $500,000 worth of precious metals.

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