Mar-a-Lago intruder told feds she came for an event; she knew it was canceled, source says
By JAY WEAVER, CAITLIN OSTROFF, SARAH BLASKEY AND NICHOLAS NEHAMAS | Miami Herald | Published: April 13, 2019
MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman arrested trying to enter Mar-a-Lago, made an 8,500-mile journey to President Donald Trump's private social club, saying she wished to attend a charity gala.
But Zhang knew before leaving China that the function had been canceled, according to a source close to the investigation of the security breach at Mar-a-Lago.
She had even requested a refund from event promoters for a $20,000 travel package that included a ticket to the canceled March 30 benefit, said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing national security probe.
The information, revealed after a search of her electronic devices by federal agents, could undercut the defense's argument that she was being truthful when she told U.S. Secret Service agents she was at Mar-a-Lago for a scheduled function.
On Friday, prosecutors indicted Zhang on charges of lying to a federal officer and entering restricted grounds. Her arraignment and detention hearing are scheduled for Monday at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach.
Kristy Militello, one of Zhang's assistant federal public defenders, declined to comment when asked why her client traveled so far for an event that had been canceled.
The indictment does not include espionage charges, despite authorities continuing to treat her case as a national security matter, sources familiar with the investigation said. Zhang's case is part of a broader counterintelligence investigation into potential Chinese espionage targeting Trump.
Zhang came to the Palm Beach club around noon on March 30 carrying a malware-infected thumb drive and other electronic devices, according to the Secret Service.
After she was stopped by a receptionist, Zhang told an agent she had arrived early for an event planned for that evening, an affidavit said. There was no such event on the calendar and Zhang was arrested. Zhang knew "no such event was scheduled at Mar-a-Lago and its grounds," the indictment said.
Zhang, 33, could face up to five years' imprisonment for lying to a federal officer and one year for entering restricted grounds, and as much as $350,000 in fines, according to court documents.
Authorities could still bring espionage charges against Zhang, a financial investor and consultant based in Shanghai. When she was arrested, she was carrying four cellphones, a computer, an external hard drive, and the thumb drive. A signal detector – used for spotting hidden cameras – was found in her hotel room, along with other electronics and more than $8,000 in U.S. and Chinese currency, a federal prosecutor said during a prior court hearing.
The FBI is still examining Zhang's electronic devices and suspected malware. Prosecutors may address the status of that examination at her scheduled arraignment Monday afternoon.
Zhang's arrest reinvigorated a broader federal investigation into possible Chinese espionage operations in South Florida, which was initiated late last year. Among the people on the radar of investigators is Li "Cindy" Yang, the South Florida day-spa owner who also ran a business peddling access to Donald Trump and Mar-a-Lago. Yang promoted on Chinese-language social media the event that Zhang paid to attend.
At Monday's hearing, federal Magistrate Judge William Matthewman will decide whether to order Zhang's continued detention or grant her a bond. Zhang entered the country March 28 through Newark Liberty International Airport on a 10-year tourist visa she had been granted in 2016. The visa has been revoked as a result of the charges against her.
If she is granted bond, Zhang will move into immigration detention and likely be scheduled for deportation.
In the indictment, prosecutors alleged that Zhang had no valid reason to be at Mar-a-Lago and lied in order to gain entry.
Zhang made it through the first Secret Service checkpoint at Mar-a-Lago by telling officers she wanted to use the pool, according to the affidavit filed by the Secret Service. She was allowed to pass when staff wrongly identified her as the daughter of a club member with the same last name – one of the three most common surnames in China.
When questioned by a receptionist at the second checkpoint, Zhang said she had arrived early for a "United Nations Friendship Event" that was scheduled for later in the day. No event was scheduled under that name. A prosecutor from the U.S. attorney's office said in court this past Monday that Zhang had made up the non-existent event as a pretext for gaining unlawful entry to Mar-a-Lago.
"When asked whether she was authorized to be at the Mar-a-Lago Club and its grounds, the defendant stated she was there to attend a 'United Nations Friendship Event,' when in truth and in fact, and as the defendant then and there well knew, no such event was scheduled at Mar-a-Lago and its grounds," the indictment states.
Zhang's public defender pushed back at the Monday hearing, saying that Zhang did not lie because she had paid to attend a "Safari Night" gala benefiting a local youth charity and hosted by the president's sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, originally scheduled for that night.
Safari Night had been advertised on Chinese social media by Yang as a summit of international elites, one that would include Trump Grau as a special guest.
While she was being questioned at Mar-a-Lago, Zhang told agents she had been invited to Mar-a-Lago by a man named Charles, who her public defender said was Yang's associate Charles Lee. Lee runs the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, a group with no apparent connection to the U.N. that Lee used to advertise Yang's Mar-a-Lago events, including Safari Night 2018. On the website, Lee's clients were directed to make payments to Beijing Peace and Friendship Management Consulting Co. Ltd. – the same company that received $20,000 from Zhang on Feb. 19, 2019, according to a receipt submitted as evidence by Zhang's attorneys.
The name Zhang gave is similar to the name of Lee's organization. It's not clear if Zhang was ever formally registered as a guest for Safari Night.
Terry Bomar, the founder of the youth-mentoring charity behind the Safari Night, said he had canceled the gala before Yang and her associates delivered him a list of people they had invited, meaning Zhang may or may not have been on their guest list.
"I knew people (they invited) were coming but nobody had given me a single name yet," Bomar said Friday. "I only had the names of people who bought tables from me."
He said he had been interviewed by federal agents about how ticket sales for Safari Night worked.
"This is not what I expected" planning a charity event, he said.
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