Prosecutor: Chinese woman lied to get into Mar-a-Lago
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Chinese businesswoman knew an event she planned to attend at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club had been canceled, but she still wanted to get onto the property and lied to Secret Service agents repeatedly to make that happen, a federal prosecutor told jurors during closing arguments Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia told the 10-woman, two-man jury that Yujing Zhang was told by her trip’s organizer almost two weeks before she left Shanghai in March that the planned Chinese-American friendship event had been canceled and she demanded her $20,000 be refunded, showing she understood. Then when Zhang, 33, arrived at the club, she falsely told a Secret Service agent she was there to use the pool, leading resort management to believe she was the daughter of a member and admit her, Garcia said.
He said prosecutors had proved that Zhang then lied to another agent, telling him she was there for the friendship event she knew was not scheduled.
“The United States scored a touchdown in this case,” Garcia said.
Zhang, who represented herself, gave a brief closing argument, telling the jury she paid to visit Mar-a-Lago and “I did nothing wrong.” She faces a possible six-year prison sentence if convicted of trespassing and lying to a federal agent. Jury deliberations will begin Wednesday morning.
During testimony earlier Tuesday, FBI linguist Catherine Chang testified that text and voice messages found on Zhang’s phone showed she signed a contract for the trip with a Chinese company in February to attend a March 30 event at Mar-a-Lago and get a photo with the president or a Trump family member. Such events have been organized by Chinese groups during the president’s term and the photos are seen as a way to advance one’s career.
By mid-March, Zhang received texts saying the event was canceled, but was told she could attend an event with Bill and Hillary Clinton or with investor Warren Buffett, though a photo with him would cost an additional $40,000, Chang testified. Zhang declined and demanded her money back from “Charles,” the organizer whom she only knew through text communications. Zhang’s former public defenders believe the mystery man is Charles Lee, who ran the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which is not affiliated with the U.N. He was photographed at least twice with Cindy Yang, a Republican donor and former Florida massage parlor owner who organized Mar-a-Lago events.
Mar-a-Lago receptionist Ariela Grumaz testified that Zhang stood out when she entered the club’s ornate lobby because she violated rules by taking photos and video, gawked at the furnishings and wore a gray evening dress at 1 p.m. She said she knows the members and most of their guests and they know not to take photos of the lobby and are used to its furnishings. Secret Service photos showed it’s bedecked with chandeliers, busts and intricate tile walls.
Grumaz said Zhang tried to walk past her desk without stopping, but she called her over before she could enter another room. She said Zhang told her she was there for the Chinese-American friendship event. Grumaz said because no such event was scheduled, she alerted Secret Service agent Sam Ivanovich.
“She was acting weird and strange,” Grumaz said. “I did not know how she got into the premises.” She said Zhang went into the women’s restroom at one point. At agents’ request, Grumaz went in and said she found Zhang texting while pacing.
Ivanovich testified that Zhang was initially cooperative, turning over two Chinese passports and allowing him to search her purse. He said she also told him about the Chinese-American friendship event and said she had come early to take photos and familiarize herself with the grounds. He said that when he told her no such event was scheduled, she showed him an invitation in Mandarin.
He said Zhang eventually became aggressive as agents examined her cellphone and she was taken to the Secret Service’s West Palm Beach office.
Ivanovich testified that Zhang was carrying four cellphones, a computer and other electronic gear, saying she feared it would be stolen if she left it in her hotel room. Ivanovich testified that agents later found $8,000 and electronic gear in her room, all out in the open.
In China on Tuesday, a foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman told reporters that anyone who believes Zhang is a spy or otherwise employed by the Chinese government is engaged in “science fiction.”
Hua Chunying said her government demands that the U.S. handle Zhang’s case “in a fair and proper manner according to law, and effectively protect the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizen involved.”
AP reporter Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed to this report.