Crime

U.S. can pursue secret national security probe of Mar-a-Lago intruder, judge rules

A federal judge has ruled that prosecutors can use a trespassing case against a Chinese intruder at President Donald Trump’s private club, Mar-a-Lago, to investigate a suspected Beijing-led intelligence operation in South Florida.

Judge Roy Altman’s decision allows prosecutors to continue filing classified evidence against Yujing Zhang, 33, without sharing the information with her — or the public.

In an order filed late Tuesday, Altman wrote that the disclosure of the information secretly filed by prosecutors last month “could cause serious damage to the national security of the United States.”

Moreover, Altman added, “none of the classified information is exculpatory,” meaning the evidence filed so far by the government appears to implicate Zhang in potential espionage.

Zhang’s March 30 arrest on the grounds of Mar-a-Lago carrying a bevy of electronic devices intensified questions about security at the president’s Palm Beach resort — and whether foreign agents seeking classified information could infiltrate and even bug the club.

Prosecutors felt the evidence they have gathered since her arrest is so sensitive that it should be seen only by a judge, and not by a grand jury, as in the vast majority of criminal inquiries. Such secrecy is allowed under Section 4 of the Classified Information Procedures Act.

Altman agreed, meaning that what started as a trespass case has now morphed into a far more serious national-security investigation conducted under a cloak of secrecy.

The probe into Zhang entails looking into her suspected intelligence activities in the United States and around the world on behalf of the Chinese government, according to sources familiar with the Mar-a-Lago case. Her arrest widened a pre-existing federal investigation into Chinese spying in South Florida and local business people suspected of acting as assets and intelligence-gatherers for the Chinese government.

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Yujing Zhang

The decision to present evidence behind closed doors will complicate Zhang’s defense. She is representing herself after Altman approved her request to fire her public defenders, asking pointed and incisive questions but displaying scant knowledge of U.S. law. She is currently charged with unlawful entry and lying to a federal officer. Her case is set for a jury trial on Aug. 19. No counts of espionage have been filed.

In court, her former lawyers have said she is a Chinese businesswoman who stumbled into Trump’s Palm Beach resort on March 30 planning to attend a charity event for which she had purchased a ticket. But the event had been canceled. (Prosecutors say they have evidence that she knew the event was not going forward.)

Her aggressive behavior raised the suspicions of staff and Secret Service agents at Mar-a-Lago, who discovered she was carrying several electronic devices. Federal agents later found cash and more electronics, including a device they say is used to detect hidden cameras, in her hotel room.

The event Zhang hoped to attend had been organized and advertised by Cindy Yang, a South Florida massage-parlor entrepreneur and GOP fundraiser. Yang had started a new business selling Chinese business people access to Trump’s private club and Republican political events. She was successful, even appearing with the president in photos. Business at Mar-a-Lago had suffered after Trump defended a white nationalist march at Charlottesville in 2017, opening the door for political and high-society novices like Yang to attend events with large numbers of guests.

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Cindy Yang raised the $50,000 needed to have her photograph taken with President Trump. Facebook

The Justice Department has opened an investigation into whether she and her associates committed campaign-finance violations, including acting as straw donors for foreigners. She has also drawn the attention of South Florida prosecutors examining suspected Chinese spying. That counterintelligence investigation is being led by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami.

The relationship between Zhang and Yang is now under scrutiny by prosecutors. Zhang had bought her ticket to the Mar-a-Lago event, a Safari Night for a local charity co-hosted by Elizabeth Trump Grau, through Yang’s China-based associate, Charles Lee. Zhang, who was denied bond and remains in pretrial detention, lives in Shanghai.

In Zhang’s trespassing case, Altman said none of the classified evidence filed by prosecutors was “relevant and helpful to the defense.”

Under federal law, the government is compelled to reveal all the evidence it collects, including material that could help exonerate Zhang. All the classified information is presented to the judge in his chambers.

The Classified Information Procedures Act, passed in 1980, is often used by prosecutors in counterintelligence cases, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, experts say. It is designed to protect national security matters from leaking out to the public — or to defendants who might share the information with foreign governments.

In ruling on requests from the government to keep evidence secret, judges must balance national security concerns with the constitutional right of defendants to know and challenge the evidence against them.

Altman, a former federal prosecutor in Miami, was appointed to the bench by Trump last year.

Jay Weaver writes about bad guys who specialize in con jobs, rip-offs and squirreling away millions. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was on the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2001. He and three Herald colleagues were Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting in 2019 for a series on gold smuggled from South America to Miami.
Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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