A 33-year-old Chinese woman is likely to be on her way home after a federal judge on Monday sentenced her to eight months in prison for lying to get into Mar-a-Lago while President Donald Trump was visiting in March.
In handing Yujing Zhang an eight-month sentence, U.S. District Judge Roy Altman noted that she has already spent nearly eight months in jail so she should be released over the weekend.
But, she won’t immediately be on a plane back to Shanghai. Altman said she must report to immigration officials for deportment. It is likely she will be picked up from a Broward County jail where she has been held and taken to Krome Detention Center south of Miami.
Zhang’s sentencing hearing was delayed when confusion erupted over whether she had received documents Altman used to determine the appropriate sentence.
Prosecutors and the probation office said they sent the documents to Zhang via certified mail. But, since she had recently been moved from a federal detention center in Miami to a Broward County jail, Altman gave Zhang time to meet with a defense attorney she fired months ago when she decided to represent herself.
But, Altman made it clear he was in the driver’s seat.
When Zhang said she had some questions for him, he shot back: “You don’t have questions for me. You have answers for me.”
Ultimately, as Zhang did during the three-day trial in September when she was convicted of lying to a federal agent and gaining access to a restricted building, the self-described investment adviser represented herself during the sentencing hearing. However, she allowed Assistant U.S. Public Defender Kristy Militello to sit by her side and speak on her behalf.
Asked why she went to Mar-a-Lago, she said: “I came there to meet president and maybe his family … and make some other friends, too.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia urged Altman to impose an 18-month sentence, arguing that Zhang lied to everyone she encountered, including a U.S. magistrate.
At a hearing before Magistrate William Matthewman shortly after her March 30 arrest, Zhang claimed she only had $5,000 in her U.S. bank account. However, an investigation showed she had $40,000 in a brokerage account along with $8,000 in cash in her hotel room, Garcia said.
By handing her the six-month sentence recommended under federal guidelines, “Zhang’s obstructive conduct in lying to the magistrate judge essentially goes unpunished,” he wrote.
More importantly, he said, the crime was a serious one. “She clearly knew she did not have permission to go on that property yet she spent thousands of dollars and traveled halfway around the world” to get into the club while Trump and his family were visiting. “She had an agenda.”
Zhang was arrested after convincing federal agents she was a member of Trump’s private club in Palm Beach. Although she was wearing an evening dress and didn’t have a bathing suit with her, U.S. Secret Service agents waved her in when she said she wanted to use the club pool.
Once inside, she changed her story, agents said. Zhang told club managers she had come to Mar-a-Lago to attend a United Nations Friendship event. Knowing no such function was planned, club managers summoned agents.
When they arrested her, Zhang was carrying a laptop, four cellphones, an external hard drive and a thumb drive in her purse, agents said.
Later, when agents searched her room at The Colony hotel, they discovered the $8,000 cash along with credit cards, another cellphone, nine USB drives, five SIM cards and a device that can be used to detect hidden cameras.
A search of her cellphone revealed that Zhang had been told that the so-called friendship event had been canceled before she left Shanghai.
Charles Lee, a Chinese businessman who arranged the trip for Zhang, texted her that the event had been nixed. While he tried to interest her in rerouting her trip to attend an event with former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Zhang said she wasn’t interested.
Instead, she asked Lee for a $20,000 refund of the travel package. “I’m not going,” she texted back. “Need the money urgently. Go ahead and credit the money back to my account by this weekend.”
Yet, the next day she paid $2,000 for a flight and showed up at Mar-a-Lago anyway, Garcia said.
“She was bound and determined to get on that property,” Garcia told jurors during the trial. “She lied to everybody to get on that property.”
While her arrest sparked concern that she was a Chinese spy, no such evidence surfaced.
Zhang isn’t the first person to face charges this year for skirting security at Mar-a-Lago while Trump was visiting.
A freshman at the University of Wisconsin, who was visiting his grandparents during last year’s Thanksgiving holiday, wandered the grounds for 20 minutes before being stopped by federal agents.
When 18-year-old Mark Lindblom pleaded guilty in May to a charge of gaining access to restricted grounds, he said he got into Mar-a-Lago by walking through a beach access point reserved for club members.
The Washington, D.C., youth apologized profusely and was placed on probation by Matthewman.
The ability of Zhang and Lindblom to bypass tight security at Mar-a-Lago raised questions about federal agents’ ability to protect Trump while he is at the club that he has dubbed the Winter White House. The Secret Service acknowledged that it doesn’t determine who gets into the club, but screens visitors carefully to assure the president and his family are protected.
© 2019 The Florida Times-Union
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