GOP donor Anton Lazzaro sentenced to 21 years for sex trafficking minors in Minnesota

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.

“He’s a sex trafficker,” prosecutor Laura Provinzino said. “One who has shown absolutely no remorse. He has accepted no responsibility for his crimes.”

U.S. District Judge Patrick Schiltz came down in the middle and had harsh words for Lazzaro.

He said Lazzaro showed sympathy to only two people during the trial — “to himself and Jeffrey Epstein.” And the judge said he was struck by the “soulless, almost mechanical nature” of how Lazzaro exploited the girls.

“It’s almost as if Mr. Lazzaro set up a sex trafficking assembly line,” Schiltz said.

One of the victims called Lazzaro a child predator in court Wednesday and said she continues to be impacted by his actions.

“I still see him in my nightmares, in my panic attacks, in men in their thirties. … Putting Tony behind bars will save so many girls,” she said.

The mother of a different victim addressed Lazzaro directly.

“The damage you caused my daughter, mentally and emotionally, you didn’t just cause that damage to her. You caused it to me and my family and all these victims and all of their families,” she said. “You stand up here and you don’t even care. You’re justifying your actions. … I hope you rot in hell.”

The Associated Press does not typically name victims of sex crimes.

Lazzaro, who has said the charges against him were politically motivated, maintained his innocence, denying that he paid any of the girls explicitly for sex.

“I take a lot of offense to the government and court’s notion that I perjured myself in this trial. … Grooming behavior is the word you used,” he said. “If that’s the case, then I suppose anyone who gives someone a gift, whether it be a cheap gift or a million dollars, is grooming their companion for sex. OK? If that’s the standard that we’re going to apply, then I don’t know how there’s any standard to apply.”

Defense attorney Daniel Gerdts said afterward that they were “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 Castro 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.