GOP donor Lazzaro denied release after federal court hearing

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

Updated: Aug. 25, 5:03 a.m. | Posted: Aug. 24, 9:55 a.m.

New details about sex trafficking charges against a Minnesota Republican donor emerged in federal court Tuesday as a judge ordered him detained.

Prior to the hearing, attorneys for Anton “Tony” Lazzaro asked that he be released from jail on bond subject to round-the-clock electronic monitoring while the case proceeds.

His arrest has already sent a tremor through state Republican politics given his significant giving and close ties with key party figures, including Jennifer Carnahan who resigned as party chair under pressure last week amid the fallout and other management concerns.

At his hearing in St. Paul, Lazzaro sat in an orange jail uniform at the defense table between his attorneys Zachary Newland and Jeremy Gordon of Texas. Twin Cities defense attorney Hillary Parsons sat behind them.

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A court filing by his defense attorney acknowledges that Lazzaro faces accusations of trafficking minors for sex and use in pornography. There are six victims noted in the indictment but authorities believe there could be more.

Lazzaro is facing 10 counts in all, including the sex trafficking of five minors and the attempted trafficking of a sixth. He pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. 

During the hearing, a police detective who was part of the Lazzaro investigation said the alleged victims ranged in age from 15 to 17 and were given gifts, such as vape pens and alcohol, as well as money in exchange for exposing themselves or doing sex acts.

The investigator who was part of a sex-crimes task force, Minneapolis police officer Brandon Brugger, told the court that Lazzaro, 30, offered one girl money and alcohol to stay silent and even floated a non-disparagement contract with another following a raid on his apartment.

Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer noted at the start of the hearing that some of the alleged victims and their parents were listening by telephone.

Brugger testified that one girl and her parents went to police in July of last year. The officer said he contacted the FBI, which was already on the case, and it became a joint investigation with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Brugger said Lazzaro “was the sex buyer” and paid 19-year old Gisela Castro Medina to seek out girls through Snapchat and other social media apps. Castro Medina is also charged in the case; she’s being held in Florida and has yet to enter a plea.

Authorities said Lazzaro had a dedicated page on the adult site “Pornhub” that referenced teens and an account on at least one other adult platform.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Laura Provinzino argued that Lazzaro “presents a flight risk and a risk to the public,” and that the defendant is asking for a “prison of privilege” at the luxury apartment where the offenses happened.

Provinzino also pointed out that one of the obstruction charges Lazzaro is facing came after he tried to pay one girl and her father $1,000 in exchange for signing a non-disclosure agreement saying the sex was consensual.

“Who asks a 16-year-old victim to sign an NDA?” Provinzino asked.

Provinzino read statements from the alleged victims and their parents, all of whom called for Lazzaro to remain jailed. The mother of the girl who first contacted police said her daughter “has been living a life of hell,” trusts no one, and has developed depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Newland — the defense attorney — said Lazzaro “did not commit any sex trafficking,” and that his alleged victims are all anonymous accusers. Newland also said Lazzaro anticipated the charges in December and did not flee, but instead “steeled himself for the fight.”

Lazzaro’s lawyers cited his lack of criminal history, said that he isn’t a flight risk and said he is willing to wear an ankle monitor and install cameras throughout his high-rise Minneapolis condominium for authorities to track his movement in the three-bedroom home.

“Taking the cameras together with the recommended use of biometric locks on areas where Mr. Lazzaro cannot go inside the home [—] Mr. Lazzaro will be living inside a real-life “Truman Show” scenario,” defense attorney Zachary Newland wrote in the filing submitted Tuesday.

Lazzaro’s criminal case contributed to the downfall of Carnahan, who resigned a week after her close friend’s arrest. She also faced numerous accusations of mishandling harassment claims and that she created a hostile work environment, which she denied.

Castro Medina was set to take over this year as the chapter chair of the University of St. Thomas College Republicans. Lazzaro is also said to have paid her tuition at the private college in St. Paul.

A business associate of Lazzaro and Castro Medina testified during the hearing. Yele-Mis Yang, a 2018 state House candidate, vouched for Lazzaro and said he would trust him around his own children.

In the end, Judge Bowbeer said the seriousness of the charges and the strength of the government’s evidence weigh in favor of detention, and that his “tremendous resources” give him the ability to flee.

Another pretrial hearing in the case is set for early October.