Updated 6:53 p.m.
A federal jury on Friday found Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, a one-time Minnesota Republican political operative and top donor, guilty on all counts of sex trafficking five girls, ages 15 and 16.
Jurors began deliberations Friday afternoon following a trial highlighted by Lazzaro, 32, taking the stand in his own defense. While eventually acknowledging he had sex with all of the girls, Lazzaro said he did not pay for sex or the recruitment of young partners.
The jury of six men and six women took only about two hours of deliberation to return with a guilty verdict.
Lazzaro faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. Andrew Luger, the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota, said later that prosecutors would seek a “strenuous sentence” but didn’t elaborate.
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Prosecutors alleged Lazzaro met his co-defendant Gisela Castro Medina on SeekingArrangement, a site that connects generally wealthy men with younger partners, and paid her to find other sex partners for him, including the five alleged victims who testified against him.
Lazzaro maintained the website was no different than other dating sites and disputed that he had an agreement with Castro Medina, then 18, to recruit girls for him.
In her closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Melinda Williams said Lazzaro had "all the trappings of wealth" but wanted more and developed a plan to buy sex from underage girls.
Calling Lazzaro a "predator," she reminded jurors that under federal law, consent to sex is not a defense to trafficking charges.
Defense attorney Daniel Gerdts countered that trafficking victims typically don't benefit financially. He also noted that Lazzaro gave cash and gifts to people he never had sex with, and did not have the kind of control over the alleged victims typically seen in trafficking cases.
In his jury instructions, however, Judge Patrick Schiltz clarified that Lazzaro did not need to control the alleged victims to cause them to engage in sex trafficking.
During the trial, Lazzaro admitted having sex with a 16-year-old girl brought by Castro Medina to his downtown condo. This was the teen prosecutors identified in court documents as Victim A. The woman, now 19, testified against Lazzaro Monday.
Lazzaro said he gave her money to buy a phone, but grew increasingly concerned about funding her drug use. He denied that he paid the teen for sex.
On the witness stand, Lazzaro also admitting having sex with a 15-year-old girl, identified as Victim C, who testified for the government last week. “I thought she was a lot older than she was,” Lazzaro said in response to a question from Gerdts.
Lazzaro admitted giving the teen money but denied that was a payment in exchange for the sex.
Following the verdict, a Lazarro spokesperson said Lazzaro was selectively prosecuted for his political activities and that authorities conflated "what is nothing more than arguably an act of prostitution with sex trafficking."
Williams, the prosecutor, told reporters after the verdict that Lazzaro was a danger to every family with a daughter, calling him Minnesota’s Jeffrey Epstein, the infamous international financier who killed himself in a New York prison as he awaited trial on charges of sex trafficking underage girls.
Lazzaro, she added, is “going to prison for a very long time."