GOP donor’s indictment poses problem for party leader

Anton Lazzaro
Anton Lazzaro, a young Republican and RNC delegate living in downtown Minneapolis, shown in 2020.
Carlos Gonzalez | Star Tribune

Updated: 3:40 p.m.

Minnesota Republican Party officials plan to hold an emergency meeting Friday night after an indictment of a prominent donor and close ally of the state GOP chair sent shockwaves through the party.

The private meeting of the party’s Executive Committee could put Minnesota GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan’s status in jeopardy. At a minimum, some on the steering panel want a full independent examination of the party’s finances. Removal of Carnahan from her job would take a two-thirds vote, according to the party constitution.

A woman smiles and talks.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan speaks with an attendant of a rally for then-President Donald Trump in Bemidji, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

It all stems from Thursday’s arrest and unsealed federal charges involving Anton “Tony” Lazzaro on multiple counts of child sexual exploitation. The charges allege that the 30-year-old Minneapolis man conspired with others to recruit and solicit six people under the age of 18 to engage in commercial sex between May and December of 2020.

Authorities seized significant amounts of money, precious metals, a luxury vehicle and several electronic devices and storage cards during a search of his high-rise condo.

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Lazzaro maintains his innocence but is jailed pending a court hearing next week. His attorney, Zachary Newland, called the accusations false and a government overreach and said Lazzaro “looks forward to clearing his good name and continuing to work for the betterment of his community.”

Multiple people who have worked for or closely with the Republican Party told MPR News that Lazzaro and Carnahan have been close friends for years, traveling often and working the party circuit. He is also a top donor to Carnahan’s husband, Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn. Lazzaro was part of a select group of invitees to the couple’s California wedding, according to sources and photos.

A scramble among party officials to distance themselves from Lazzaro and the charges he faces played out Friday.

Carnahan issued a statement through the party after making no comments on Thursday.

“If the allegations against Mr. Anton Lazzaro are true, this is an abhorrent act that we condemn in the highest possible terms,” Carnahan said, pledging to turn over donations he made to the organization to charity. "Sex trafficking is a heinous act that preys on victims of all ages, races, and backgrounds, and warrants severe punishment by our judicial system. A full investigation is necessary to ensure due process is provided to all parties involved." 

State and federal campaign records show Lazzaro donated at least $52,000 to accounts entirely or jointly run by the state party. Thousands more were given to local party units. And candidates scooped up many thousands from Lazzaro, whom sources said was a member of the exclusive Elephant Club board of top GOP donors.

Rep. Hagedorn received more money from Lazzaro than any candidate to his campaign committee or funds associated with him. His campaign says it will turn over $21,000 to charity.

A man speaks behind a podium.
Rep. Jim Hagedorn talks during a televised debate. In a statement, Hagedorn said that money would be rerouted to charities that focus on combatting exploitation and violence against women.
Gage Cureton for MPR News 2020

In a statement, Hagedorn said that money would be rerouted to charities that focus on combatting exploitation and violence against women. His campaign said details would be released after the donations were made.

"These charges are deeply troubling. No one should be a victim of sex trafficking. Every citizen has the right to present a defense in court to refute charges,” Hagedorn said in the statement. “But, should these serious allegations lead to a conviction, we expect the imposition of the strictest punishments under our judicial system.”

Other recipients of Lazzaro’s donations also worked to unload an equivalent amount of money and issued statements condemning the alleged behavior.

“Yesterday's indictment was deeply disturbing, and I hope he will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I'm grateful that the FBI and other agencies are working to combat sex trafficking here in MN,” wrote House Minority Leader Kurt Daudt, who received a $1,000 check in 2018 that he was rerouting to charity.

Calls for Carnahan to step aside were bubbling up, but had not gained traction among elected officials.

People who discussed Lazzaro’s party ties on the condition they not be identified by name said he was a go-to donor for Carnahan. He helped her win her job as party chair in 2017, both as a volunteer and a financial contributor.

Lazzaro worked as the campaign manager in 2020 to Republican nominee Lacy Johnson, who ran a well-financed race but suffered a blowout loss against Democratic Rep. Illhan Omar.

Johnson said he didn’t know of his former strategist’s personal life.

“I am disgusted over the allegations made in the federal indictment lodged against Anton Lazzaro. I fully support vigorous enforcement of human trafficking laws. This matter is now in the hands of the courts. May justice be served,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.

MPR News reporter Matt Sepic contributed to this story.