MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — A formerly well-connected GOP donor convicted of giving teenage girls gifts, alcohol and money in exchange for sex was sentenced Wednesday to 21 years in prison on sex trafficking charges.
Anton “Tony” Lazzaro was found guilty in March by a federal jury of seven counts involving “commercial sex acts” with five girls ages 15 and 16 in 2020, when Lazzaro was 30. The charges carried mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a maximum of life in prison.
Prosecutors had requested a 30-year sentence for Lazzaro. They likened Lazzaro to financier Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested in 2019 on federal charges accusing him of paying underage girls for massages and then abusing them at his homes in Florida and New York. The defense asked for no more than 10 years. U.S. District judge Patrick Schiltz came down in the middle.
Lazzaro, who maintains his own innocence and has said the charges against him were politically motivated, plans to appeal.
“It went as expected,” defense attorney Daniel Gerdts said afterward. “Looking forward to the appeal.”
Lazzaro’s indictment in 2021 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 was 19 at the time, formerly led the College Republicans chapter at the University of St. Thomas. She pleaded guilty to two counts last year. She testified against Lazzaro and faces sentencing in September.
Prosecutors argued during his trial that Lazzaro enlisted Medina, who he initially paid for sex, to recruit other teenagers — preferably minors — who were white, small, vulnerable or “broken.” He often sent cars to take the girls to his luxury penthouse condo at the Hotel Ivy in downtown Minneapolis, they said.
Gerdts had argued that the government’s “salacious” prosecution was based on “completely unfounded” allegations. Lazzaro has denied paying for sex, saying the government targeted him for political reasons and because of his wealth.
Carnahan, the widow of U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn, of Minnesota, resigned a week after the charges against Lazzaro were unsealed. She denied knowing of any wrongdoing by Lazzaro beforehand and condemned his alleged crimes. But his arrest fueled outrage among party activists. Allegations surfaced that Carnahan created a toxic work environment and abused nondisclosure agreements to silence her critics.
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 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 gave more than $270,000 to Republican campaigns and political committees over the years.
Several recipients quickly donated those contributions to charity after the charges became public, including U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, of Minnesota, who received $15,600 but suffered no repercussions. Emmer became majority whip in January.
The sources of Lazzaro’s wealth have been murky. Defense filings 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 put his net worth in a bond report at more than $2 million but said its calculations didn’t include his “extensive” but hard-to-trace cryptocurrency holdings. It noted that the search yielded multiple types of foreign currency, plus precious metals worth more than $500,000.
Trisha Ahmed is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Trisha Ahmed on Twitter: @TrishaAhmed15