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Big donations, high ambition, and massages

Cindy Yang posed with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in 2018. She ran a business that promised access to American politicians, including Trump.
Cindy Yang posed with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in 2018. She ran a business that promised access to American politicians, including Trump.

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 reelection 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.

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Over the weeks leading up to the event, at least nine people in Yang’s orbit 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.

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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’s 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.

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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 in a statement. “If we do see any evidence of illegal contributions, we report it to the proper authorities.”

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’s frigid northeast 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 Chinese-language 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.

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“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.

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.

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

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 to the Times.

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.