Day spa owner who gave big do­na­tions had high am­bi­tions

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Frances Rob­les, Michael Forsythe and Alexan­dra Steven­son

JUPITER, Fla. – The Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee promised an “evening re­cep­tion with Don­ald J. Trump” last March at his Mar-a-Lago re­sort in Palm Beach, Fla.

A con­tri­bu­tion of $2,700 to­ward the pres­i­dent’s re-elec­tion would get you in the door. Two seats for din­ner were on of­fer for $25,000. And there was a third op­tion: for $50,000, din­ner for two and a photo with Trump.

Cindy Yang was de­ter­mined to get the photo.

But there was a hur­dle. The in­vi­ta­tion lim­ited cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to $5,400 per per­son, so Yang, a Chi­nese im­mi­grant who had set up a string of day spas in Florida and was ac­tive in groups backed by the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment and Com­mu­nist Party, needed oth­ers to chip in.

Over the weeks lead­ing up to the event, at least nine peo­ple in Yang’s or­bit, some of them with mod­est in­comes, made do­na­tions at ex­actly $5,400. She ended up at the din­ner.

Yang was lit­tle known out­side south­ern Florida un­til her name be­came as­so­ci­ated with the ar­rest last month of Robert Kraft, owner of the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots, in a pros­ti­tu­tion sting at a Jupiter mas­sage par­lor. The Mi­ami Her­ald first re­ported that she had pre­vi­ously owned that par­lor.

Though she was not charged or im­pli­cated in the sting, her other busi­ness ef­forts have since come un­der pub­lic scru­tiny. One promised rich Chi­nese clients ac­cess to the so­cial scene around Trump – and was pro­moted on­line with pic­tures of Cab­i­net mem­bers, the Trump fam­ily and even the pres­i­dent him­self.

One of the $5,400 po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions came from a 25-year-old wo­man who gives fa­cials at a beauty school, in a strip mall in nearby Palm Beach Gar­dens that is owned by Yang’s fam­ily. An­other $5,400 came from a wo­man who says she worked as a re­cep­tion­ist at a mas­sage par­lor owned by Yang’s hus­band. A third gift of $5,400 came from an as­so­ciate of Yang’s who had been charged in 2014 af­ter a pros­ti­tu­tion sting with prac­tic­ing health care with­out a li­cense, po­lice records show.

The re­cep­tion­ist, Bing­bing Peranio, listed as a “man­ager” on her dis­clo­sure, spoke with a re­porter about her re­la­tion­ship with Yang. She de­scribed her­self as a big fan of Trump and said Yang, a reg­is­tered Re­pub­li­can, was seen as a leader among Asian-Amer­i­can Re­pub­li­cans in Florida.

Peranio said Yang had come to the spa where she worked at the time and helped fill out the check to­ward the pres­i­dent’s cam­paign. “I can’t say she was push­ing me or not push­ing me, but I worked there then,” she said, speak­ing at her home in Jupiter. “I was work­ing there. I didn’t say no.”

Asked if Yang had re­im­bursed her for the $5,400, Peranio said, “I do not want to an­swer that ques­tion.” Re­im­burs­ing some­one for a po­lit­i­cal con­tri­bu­tion or con­tribut­ing in the name of an­other per­son is il­le­gal.

The other con­trib­u­tors de­clined to be in­ter­viewed or did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

It is rare for work­ers in the mas­sage and spa busi­ness to sup­port can­di­dates for of­fice at such high-dol­lar levels, ac­cord­ing to an anal­y­sis of Fed­eral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion records. In 2017 and 2018, of the nearly 65,000 do­na­tions made by peo­ple listed as mas­sage ther­a­pists on FEC dis­clo­sures, only two gave the max­i­mum $5,400, in­clud­ing one of the Trump donors con­nected to Yang.

Yang, con­tacted by the New York Times, de­clined to dis­cuss the con­tri­bu­tions or her at­ten­dance at the Mar-a-Lago event. Her lawyer, Evan W. Turk, did not re­spond to ques­tions about the do­na­tions but said in a state­ment to the me­dia Thurs­day that “the ev­i­dence in­di­cates that our client has been falsely ac­cused,” with­out pro­vid­ing fur­ther de­tail.

A spokesman for the Re­pub­li­can Na­tional Com­mit­tee de­nied “any wrong­do­ing on be­half of the RNC or Trump cam­paign.”

“We only ac­cept do­na­tions in ac­cor­dance with the law,” the spokesman said. “If we do see any ev­i­dence of il­le­gal con­tri­bu­tions, we re­port it to the proper au­thor­i­ties. If we were no­ti­fied by the au­thor­i­ties that a do­na­tion were il­le­gal, we would re­turn the money.”

In ad­di­tion to the spa work­ers, the fed­eral records show three rel­a­tives of Yang – in­clud­ing her hus­band and her mother – and two busi­ness as­so­ci­ates who do­nated $5,400. In to­tal, the do­na­tions from Yang and the oth­ers came to at least $54,000.

Yang got her photo with the pres­i­dent, which she re­ceived in the mail signed by Trump in sil­ver ink. She posted it to Face­book on March 22 and to her com­pany’s web­site, which has since been taken down.

Friends and as­so­ci­ates of Yang – who left China two decades ago and has also gone by Yang Li and Yang Li­juan – said she had spent a life­time chas­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Yang, 45, con­ducted in­ter­views with busi­ness­peo­ple for a Chi­ne­se­lan­guage chan­nel in Sil­i­con Val­ley. She dealt an­tiques and pro­moted artists. She sold med­i­cal equip­ment. She founded a club that pro­motes a fig­ure-hug­ging Chi­nese silk dress. And she built the chain of mas­sage par­lors and day spas in Florida, in­clud­ing the Orchids of Asia Day Spa & Mas­sage, where Kraft and sev­eral other wealthy men were ac­cused of so­lic­it­ing sex af­ter it changed own­er­ship. Kraft has pleaded not guilty.

“When we talked about a sit­u­a­tion, she was able to see a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity where we couldn’t,” said Lu Fang, who has known Yang for more than a decade and was a mem­ber of the dress club but was not among the Trump donors. “She knows how to seize an op­por­tu­nity, and I still ad­mire her.”

Yang dis­cov­ered pol­i­tics in 2015, and she quickly be­came a fundraiser for Re­pub­li­can can­di­dates and causes, em­brac­ing the life­style it de­manded, too, ac­cord­ing to Lu and two other ac­quain­tances of Yang who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

The elec­tion of Trump brought new op­por­tu­ni­ties as the line be­tween busi­ness and pol­i­tics be­came espe­cially blurred.

Yang, who at­tended the in­au­gu­ra­tion, started a com­pany – GY US In­vest­ments – that promised Chi­nese busi­ness­peo­ple ac­cess to Amer­i­can politi­cians, in­clud­ing Trump. Clients were of­fered en­try to events, in­clud­ing White House vis­its, “VIP ac­tiv­i­ties at Mar-a-Lago” and War­ren Buf­fett’s an­nual meet­ing of Berk­shire Hath­away share­hold­ers.

Sun Ye, an ac­tress in Bei­jing, was among those who ap­peared in pho­to­graphs on Yang’s web­site. Sun said she wanted to travel to the United States to bur­nish her im­age in China and abroad. She said she took a deluxe tour last year that in­cluded vis­its to Har­vard, the Nas­daq mar­ket­place and the White House. For part of the trip, she said, she stayed with Yang.

The high­light, she said, was to be in a photo with the pres­i­dent at a New Year’s party at Mar-a-Lago, one of the events pro­moted on Yang’s web­site.

Trump, how­ever, skipped the party and stayed in Washington be­cause of a gov­ern­ment shut­down. Sun set­tled for a photo with his son Don­ald Jr.

“I wanted to see the pres­i­dent of the United States, and al­though I didn’t meet him, I met his fam­ily,” Sun said in an in­ter­view in Bei­jing. “It made me feel like I achieved my dream.”

Yang’s mother, Zhang Guiy­ing, told the Her­ald, which first re­ported Yang’s ap­pear­ances at Mar-a-Lago, that there was a sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion for her daugh­ter’s frenzy of po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­ity: “She likes to show off.” Reached out­side her home in Welling­ton, Fla., Zhang de­clined to com­ment.

It is un­clear how much fi­nan­cial suc­cess Yang’s en­deav­ors have yielded. Her art-pro­mo­tion com­pany, Fufu In­ter­na­tional, which is listed un­der her mother’s name, filed for bank­ruptcy last year with more than $150,000 in credit card debt.

On Wed­nes­day, typed notes were taped to the doors of her beauty school ask­ing any­one to re­frain from con­tact­ing her fam­ily and friends. One of the donors to Trump’s re-elec­tion ef­fort with con­nec­tions to Yang was seated at the re­cep­tion desk at a nail salon next door to the beauty school.

The con­tri­bu­tion from the wo­man was among the 231 do­na­tions in 2017 and 2018 that listed the word “fa­cial” in the oc­cu­pa­tion de­scrip­tion for the FEC. And it was the only one at the max­i­mum $5,400.

Turk said in a state­ment on Thurs­day that his client’s rep­u­ta­tion had been de­stroyed. “Cindy Yang seems to be an­other ca­su­alty, as a sup­porter of our pres­i­dent,” he said.

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