GOP strategist and donor appears for child sex trafficking case with new defense team
Anton Lazzaro faces 10 charges for allegedly paying minors for sex and has been in custody since federal authorities raided his Minneapolis apartment in August. Lazarro has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
MINNEAPOLIS — After months of delays, a Minnesota Republican Party donor and strategist charged with underage sex trafficking appeared in court Thursday, March 24, with his new legal team.
Anton Joseph Lazzaro faces 10 charges for allegedly paying minors for sex. Prosecutors claim he lured five victims for sex and attempted to lure a sixth between May and December 2020.
Lazzaro has been in custody since federal authorities arrested him at his Minneapolis apartment in August. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
“Our client is not a sex offender, he adamantly maintains his innocence,” attorney Mark Satawa told reporters outside Minneapolis federal court following the Thursday hearing. The Michigan-based attorney, who recently joined Lazzaro’s defense team, questioned whether District Court was the correct venue for his client’s case. “At the most, this should be a state prosecution. This is not a federal crime and it’s certainly not federal sex trafficking.”
Lazzaro struggled with his previous attorneys, Satawa said. He fired an attorney in November and three others in February. Lazzaro has since retained Grand Rapids, Michigan-based firm Springstead Bartish Borgula and Lynch. Thursday’s hearing marked their first appearance in court for Lazzaro, and since they are new to the case many of the motions were written by the previous team.
During Thursday’s hearing, Lazzaro’s new team argued motions to dismiss charges against their client, including one that the government targeted Lazzaro because of his wealth and status. The new team appeared to want to revisit some of the motions to dismiss based on discrimination as they did not fully agree with the past team's arguments.
Satawa told reporters after the hearing that he did not want to speculate on whether politics played a role in the case.
The two issues that dominated much of the Thursday hearing were whether a cellphone seized during the arrest could be used as evidence and whether federal authorities could continue to hold Lazzaro’s 2010 Ferrari convertible, which prosecutors claim he used to pick up a victim. The government seized the vehicle in August.
The car is one of several assets federal agents seized, including gold bars and hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. Authorities have since returned the cash and precious metals, which they seized in a December 2020 search warrant.
Steven Kessler, a New York attorney representing Lazzaro on forfeitures in the case, argued that the government had no right to keep the vehicle since it was not core to the crimes he is accused of committing. There was "no evidence he took to the streets in his shiny Ferrari" to meet potential victims, Kessler argued before the judge.
FBI Special Agent Patrick Rielly with the Minneapolis field office gave testimony on Lazzaro's arrest operation as prosecutors attempted to keep a phone seized in the August raid in evidence. Lazzaro during his arrest had a phone on his person that he somehow put back in the doorway of his apartment, which Rielly said he grabbed before leaving. Rielly told the court he had no option but to secure the phone as he was concerned that because Lazzaro's girlfriend was in the apartment there was a chance the phone could be destroyed or tampered with.
Reilly testified Lazzaro was compliant during the arrest, though at one point called agents "scum of the earth."
On cross-examination, the defense pointed out that the FBI did not have a warrant to seize evidence during the arrest, but the government is arguing the phone could be seized incident to arrest or because of exigent circumstances.
Lazzaro's indictment on sex trafficking charges led to upheaval in the Minnesota Republican Party. His close association with former party chair Jennifer Carnahan contributed to her resignation in August 2021.
Carnahan condemned Lazzaro's alleged actions and denied knowledge of any illegal activity. The former chair is now running for her late husband Rep. Jim Hagedorn's seat in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District.
Former University of St. Thomas College Republicans chair Gisela Medina also faces charges in the case for aiding Lazzaro in his recruiting activities.
A trial date has not yet been set for Lazzaro as the prosecution and defense continue to work through motions filed in the case.