A formerly well-connected Republican donor was convicted on Friday of enticing teenage girls with gifts, cash and money in exchange for sex.
A federal jury found Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, 32, guilty of seven counts involving “commercial sex acts” with five girls aged 15 and 16 in 2020, when he was 30 years old.
The charges carry mandatory minimum sentences of 10 years with a maximum of life in prison.
The jury will return to court on Monday to determine what property the government can seize based on each conviction, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Lazzaro – who contends the charges against him were politically motivated – plans to appeal, a spokesperson for his attorneys said in a statement to the Associated Press.
“The unusual application of this federal sex trafficking statute to his activities is frighteningly broad, conflating what is nothing more than arguably an act of prostitution with federal sex trafficking,” Stacy Bettison said. “He believes he has strong grounds for appeal, and he will vigorously seek reversal of his conviction. Mr Lazzaro trusts he will be vindicated.”
Lazzaro’s indictment led to the downfall of Jennifer Carnahan as chair of the Republican party of Minnesota.
His co-defendant, 21-year-old Gisela Castro Medina, who formerly led the University of St Thomas’s College Republican chapter, pleaded guilty to two counts last year. She testified against Lazzaro.
Prosecutors argued during the 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 wanted sex, and not just any sex,” federal prosecutor Melinda Williams said during closing arguments on Friday. “He wanted sex with minor girls under the age of 18. And he had a plan to get it.”
Lazarro’s attorney, Daniel Gerdts, argued that the government’s “salacious” prosecution was based on “completely unfounded” allegations.
“The prosecution clearly disapproves of Mr Lazzaro’s playboy lifestyle,” Gerdts said. “And frankly, as the father of three daughters, so do I. The opprobrium is well deserved, but that is not why we’re here.”
Carnahan, the widow of former Minnesota Republican congressman Jim Hagedorn, resigned a week after the charges against Lazzaro were unsealed. She denied knowing about Lazzaro’s crimes but his arrest prompted outrage among party activists.
Pictures on Lazzaro’s social media accounts showed him with prominent Republicans, including ex-president Donald Trump and former vice-president Mike Pence. He gave more than $270,000 to Republican campaigns and political committees over the years.