Mar-a-Lago: a top destination for Trump tourism
Federal prosecutors in Washington, D.C., this week sent subpoenas to Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, and Trump Victory, a political fundraising committee, demanding they turn over all records relating to Republican Party donor Li “Cindy” Yang and several of her associates and companies, the Miami Herald has learned.
Yang, a South Florida massage-parlor entrepreneur, is the target of a public corruption investigation seeking to determine if she funneled money from China to the president’s re-election campaign or otherwise violated campaign-finance laws. She became a GOP donor in the 2016 election cycle and opened a consulting company that promised Chinese businesspeople the chance to attend events at Mar-a-Lago and gain access to Trump and his inner circle. Some of those events were campaign fundraisers that required guests to buy tickets for entry, payments that are considered political contributions. Foreign nationals are prohibited from donating to U.S. political campaigns.
Investigators are seeking evidence from Mar-a-Lago and Trump Victory as they build a potential case against Yang and possibly others close to her. The president’s club and the fundraising committee are not the targets of the investigation. The subpoenas cover records from January 2017 to the present. A spokeswoman for Yang did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
One subpoena, issued by a federal grand jury in West Palm Beach, compels Mar-a-Lago to turn over all documents, records and communications relating to Yang, as well as 11 other people, one charity and seven companies affiliated with her, according to a person familiar with the investigation who asked for anonymity to discuss an ongoing probe. The people named in that subpoena include Yang’s family members, former employees at her massage parlors and several donors to Trump Victory. Prosecutors were trying to serve the subpoena to Mar-a-Lago through a South Florida law firm, the source said.
The second subpoena, for Trump Victory, was served to attorneys at a Washington, D.C., law firm. It seeks campaign-finance records relating to Yang and her associates.
Mar-a-Lago is owned by the Trump Organization, the president’s family company. Trump Victory is a joint fundraising committee for the president and the Republican National Committee. It supports his re-election efforts.
The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday. A Trump Victory official said: “Trump Victory makes every effort possible to ensure that all contributions are made in accordance with the law. While we can’t comment on any possible ongoing investigations, of course our committee would comply with any request from law enforcement to ensure all contributions are made legally.”
The Justice Department declined to comment.
The investigation is being handled by the FBI and the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section in Washington. While special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election has ended, the new probe examining Chinese money may add to growing concerns over foreign influence heading into the 2020 election. (In a separate matter, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami have been investigating possible Chinese espionage operations in South Florida targeting Mar-a-Lago.)
Prosecutors handling the public-corruption probe had previously subpoenaed Bing Bing Peranio, a former receptionist at one of Yang’s massage parlors, for information about a $5,400 donation she made to Trump Victory ahead of a March 3, 2018, RNC event at Mar-a-Lago. Investigators are seeking to learn if foreign nationals may have been the original source of that money. In interviews with the New York Times and Miami Herald, Peranio has refused to answer when asked if Yang reimbursed her for the donation, a violation of campaign-finance laws against “straw” donors.
Peranio was named in the Mar-a-Lago subpoena as well. So were several other people who made donations to the president’s re-election campaign shortly before the event.
Concerns that Yang could be funneling foreign money to Trump’s campaign began in March after the Miami Herald revealed she was using Chinese-language social media to advertise ticket sales for events at Mar-a-Lago to Chinese business executives, and had been photographed several times with Trump and other leading Republican politicians. She promoted the GOP fundraisers and charity galas at Mar-a-Lago as ways to meet the president, his family and his advisers. The phenomenon was dubbed ”Trump Tourism.”
Last week, a campaign-finance watchdog group filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, claiming that Yang accepted payments from wealthy Chinese individuals in order to buy them tickets to RNC events. It is illegal to not disclose the original source of a political contribution, and it is illegal for foreign nationals — people who do not hold U.S. citizenship or a green card — to contribute to an American political campaign. Foreign nationals can attend fundraisers as guests so long as they do not reimburse the person who paid for their entry.
Yang has denied any wrongdoing and is suing the Miami Herald for defamation. The civil case is pending. She and her family have donated nearly $70,000 to Trump since his election.
Since Trump became president, the RNC has chosen to host several campaign events at Mar-a-Lago to raise money for his re-election.
On March 3, 2018, Cindy Yang attended one of those events as a VIP guest after contributing the $50,000 required to receive a ticket and a signed picture with the president.
Yang would later use that photo and others from the event on the website of her consulting business, GY US Investments, to advertise access to the president to overseas clients. The subpoena compels Mar-a-Lago to turn over information on GY US Investments and a similarly named company, according to the source.
Over the past year, Yang advertised at least eight Trump-related events to Chinese clients. Five of those events gave proceeds to Trump Victory — the committee dedicated to raising money for Trump’s re-election. Two of the campaign fundraisers were hosted at Mar-a-Lago, and the others at various venues around the country, including one at Cipriani restaurant in New York City.
Among the parties named in the Mar-a-Lago subpoena are:
▪ Fuming Yang and Guiying Zhang, Yang’s father and mother, and Zubin Gong, her husband. They could not be reached.
▪ Katrina Eggertsson, an employee at one of Yang’s massage parlors who donated $5,400 to Trump Victory and $5,400 to the president’s campaign fund before the Mar-a-Lago event that Yang attended as a VIP, according to FEC records. Eggertsson did not respond to a message.
▪ Jon Deng, a businessman from Palm Beach County who belonged to a political group called the National Committee of Asian American Republicans. Yang served as a fundraiser for that group, commonly called the Asian GOP. In the weeks before a 2017 Trump fundraiser in New York City where Yang brought several Chinese-speaking guests, Deng and his wife, Hui Liu, donated $85,000 to Trump Victory. At that event, two guests of the Asian GOP received photos with Trump priced at $50,000. Neither is recorded as making a contribution. Deng did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. In the past, Deng denied wrongdoing and said he no longer worked with Yang.
▪ Li Jing, a New York-based marketing executive who contributed $27,000 to Trump Victory ahead of the New York fundraiser. Jing previously told the Herald she did not recall the donation. Jing hung up the phone when reached by a reporter Wednesday. She did not respond to subsequent text messages.
▪ Elizabeth MacCall, a former employee at Yang’s day-spa chain who donated $5,400 to Trump Victory and $5,400 to Trump’s presidential campaign fund. MacCall declined to comment Wednesday.
▪ Haizhen Gong, owner of a day spa in South Florida who donated $5,400 to Trump Victory and $5,400 to the president’s campaign fund. A woman who answered a phone number listed for Gong said she did not speak English when a reporter called, and hung up twice when a Chinese-speaking reporter subsequently reached her.
▪ Several companies affiliated with Yang, including Destination of the World, Fufu International, Tokyo Beauty and Massage School and a nonprofit called the Women’s Charity Foundation. One of the charity’s founding members is Xianqin Qu, leader of the Florida chapter of a group known as a foreign arm of the Communist Party of China.
Yang had planned to attend an RNC fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago scheduled for March 10 of this year.
But she canceled at the last minute after the Herald reported that she had once owned the spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with receiving sex acts from a masseuse. (He denies the allegations.) Yang had sold that spa years earlier but continued to own a chain of day spas that, in at least two cases, were reported to police for prostitution.