Chinese businesswoman guilty in Mar-a-Lago trespassing case
Terry Spencer, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, September 11, 2019 3:50PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, September 11, 2019 5:25PM EDT
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Yujing Zhang's desire to meet U.S. President Donald Trump and his family turned the Chinese businesswoman into an American felon.
A 10-woman, two-man federal jury convicted Zhang on Wednesday of trespassing at the president's Mar-a-Lago club in March and lying to Secret Service agents. The 33-year-old Shanghai consultant faces up to six years in prison when District Judge Roy Altman sentences her Nov. 22.
Zhang, who acted as her own attorney after firing her public defenders in June, showed no reaction when the verdict was read. She then spoke calmly with federal marshals, discussing what would happen with her legal papers. She smiled at her standby public defenders and was led back to jail.
Prosecutors and Zhang's standby attorneys declined to comment. Jury forewoman Shelly Hoffman said only, “You heard our verdict.”
Zhang's troubles began in February when she paid $20,000 to “Charles,” a man she knew only online, to attend a Chinese-American friendship event at Mar-a-Lago on March 30. It included a promised photo with the president or a member of his family, evidence showed. Such meet-and-greets are common during events at Mar-a-Lago, the exclusive club Trump has run since 1995 on the grounds of a 1920s mansion built by cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
Zhang's former public defenders believe “Charles” is Charles Lee, a Chinese national who ran the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association. It is not affiliated with the U.N. He was photographed at least twice with Cindy Yang, a Republican donor and former Florida massage parlour owner who organized Mar-a-Lago events.
By mid-March, texts the Secret Service found on Zhang's cellphone showed Charles told Zhang the event had been cancelled. For the same price she could attend an event with Bill and Hillary Clinton or one with investor Warren Buffett, although a photo with Buffett would cost $40,000 more, testimony showed. Photos with celebrities like the Trumps, the Clintons or Buffett are sometimes used by Chinese business owners for promotion.
Zhang demanded a refund, the text showed. Prosecutors said that showed she understood the event was off.
Still, Zhang flew to the United States on March 28. A limo driver testified that on March 29 he took to Mar-a-Lago a woman prosecutors said was Zhang. The woman told Willy Isidore she planned to visit the club, but he told her that was impossible unless she had an invitation.
The next day, a taxi dropped Zhang off at the Secret Service screening area across from Mar-a-Lago. The president and his family were at the club that weekend, although he was playing golf at his nearby course and Zhang was never near him.
Agent Krystle Kerr testified Zhang said she was there to visit the pool. Mar-a-Lago managers thought she might be the daughter of a member named Zhang and admitted her.
Receptionist Ariela Grumaz testified she immediately spotted Zhang as an outsider. Grumaz said she knows the 500 members and most of their guests and Zhang was taking photos in the lobby, which is prohibited. She also said Zhang was wearing a long, gray evening dress at 1 p.m., which seemed odd. Grumaz said she stopped Zhang as she tried to walk past her into another room. Zhang told her she was there for the U.N. event, but Grumaz knew no such event was scheduled.
Grumaz alerted the Secret Service. Agent Sam Ivanovich testified Zhang told him she was there for a Chinese-American event and showed him an invitation in Mandarin, which he doesn't speak. He said a search showed Zhang was carrying four cellphones, a laptop and an external hard drive. She told agents she feared they would be stolen if she left them in her hotel room. However, when agents searched her room, they discovered in the open more electronics gear - including a device to detect hidden cameras - $8,000 in cash and numerous credit and debit cards. She faced no espionage charges, however.
Ivanovich said Zhang lied again, saying she never told Kerr she was there to visit the pool. She carried no swimsuit.
Zhang's decision to represent herself frequently frustrated Judge Altman during pretrial hearings and the trial and he often beseeched her to use her public defenders. She sometimes spoke well in English, but other times relied on her Mandarin interpreters. At one point she claimed she couldn't fully understand Mandarin because she hadn't spoken it much in six months, but Altman found that claim ridiculous.
Still, the former federal prosecutor appointed by Trump earlier this year frequently tried to help Zhang navigate the trial by stepping in where defence attorneys normally would. For example, he ordered prosecutors to reword questions and he stopped an FBI translator from noting a stamp on the contract Zhang signed with Charles contained the initials of the Chinese Communist Party, a potentially prejudicial but irrelevant revelation.