A formerly well-connected Republican donor, accused of plying petite, vulnerable teenage girls with cash, liquor and gifts, goes on trial Tuesday on federal charges of sex trafficking minors.
Anton “Tony” Lazzaro is charged with seven counts involving “commercial sex acts” with five minors ages 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30 years old.
His indictment touched off a political firestorm that led to the downfall of Jennifer Carnahan as chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota.
His co-defendant, Gisela Castro Medina, who formerly 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 faces sentencing 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’s simply a sex-trafficking case.
They have not signaled any intent 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 he’s innocent and that the charges are politically motivated.
“Mr. Lazzaro believes he is being targeted 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 other individuals, including many 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 US Rep. 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 she condemned his alleged crimes.
But his arrest fueled outrage among party activists. Allegations surfaced that she created a toxic work environment and abused nondisclosure agreements 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 backed 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.
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 charges became public, including US Rep. Tom Emmer, of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no repercussions.
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