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Feds open foreign-money investigation into Trump donor Cindy Yang

Cindy Yang in a selfie photo with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. (Facebook / Tribune News Service)
Cindy Yang in a selfie photo with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. (Facebook / Tribune News Service)
By Jay Weaver, Nicholas Nehamas, Caitlin Ostroff and Sarah Blaskey Miami Herald

MIAMI – The FBI has opened a public corruption investigation into Republican donor and South Florida massage-parlor entrepreneur Li “Cindy” Yang, focusing on whether she illegally funneled money from China into the president’s reelection effort or committed other potential campaign-finance violations, the Miami Herald has learned.

Investigators obtained a federal grand jury subpoena Tuesday seeking records from Bing Bing Peranio, an employee of Yang’s family’s spa business who last year contributed a maximum $5,400 to President Donald Trump’s reelection effort, according to a source familiar with the probe. Yang came to Peranio’s workplace and helped her write the check, Peranio told reporters from The New York Times, who first reported the contribution. Peranio told The Times she didn’t “say no.”

The subpoena asked for any records related to that March 5, 2018, donation and possibly other contributions between 2014 and the present, said the source, who asked for anonymity to discuss an ongoing federal investigation.

In a brief phone interview with the Miami Herald, Peranio confirmed that she had received a subpoena and that FBI agents had interviewed her at her home Thursday.

She declined to discuss the nature of the conversation but said she did not understand why investigators were interested in her political contributions. “It’s not just me,” Peranio said. “I don’t know why I always get it.”

The Justice Department declined to comment. The Miami FBI office referred inquiries to the national press office, which did not immediately respond. Karyn Turk, a spokeswoman for Yang, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

FBI agents based in West Palm Beach are trying to determine if Yang reimbursed Peranio for that contribution or delivered “anything of value” to her over that period to benefit the Trump campaign. Reimbursing someone for a political contribution without disclosing the original source is illegal, as is making a contribution in someone else’s name.

Agents are seeking records from Peranio, a potential witness in the investigation, that are linked to Yang, Yang’s husband, their businesses, as well as Trump campaign entities and the Republican National Committee.

Cindy Yang, a naturalized American citizen, ran a business that promised Chinese executives access to Trump and his family, particularly at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach. In 2018, Yang became a promoter of events at Mar-a-Lago, selling tickets on Chinese social media posts targeting overseas Chinese business people with an interest in meeting the U.S. president. Yang and her guests have attended various Trump campaign events.

That raised questions of whether she was using funds paid by foreigners to purchase tickets for political events. Foreign nationals are not allowed to contribute to American political campaigns unless they have a green card. Yang stepped down from her fundraising role for an Asian American GOP group after opposing a change in rules meant to keep out foreign money, according to the group’s executive director.

The investigation could raise complications for a president who, after the Mueller report was delivered to Congress last month, might have hoped to put an end to controversy over foreign influence potentially benefiting his campaign. Now, China may replace Russia as the latest cause for concern as the 2020 presidential campaign gains steam.

The reports about potential Chinese influence come as Trump is in the midst of intense trade negotiations with China over tariffs on imports.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami have been investigating possible Chinese intelligence operations targeting Trump and Mar-a-Lago. That joint inquiry began even before Yang gained national attention in March when the Herald published photos of her with Trump and revealed her access-selling operation – and before a Chinese woman named Yujing Zhang was arrested trying to enter Mar-a-Lago with a large stash of electronic devices.

On a website for her consulting company, GY US Investments, Yang posted photographs of herself with Trump, Florida politicians and conservative celebrities, the Herald revealed. (This week, Yang filed a defamation suit against the Herald over that article.)

Tuesday’s subpoena demands that Peranio turn over any records relating to that consulting company as well as documents concerning Yang; her husband, Zubin Gong; the president’s political action committee Trump Victory; the Republican National Committee and other companies, and a charity tied to Yang.

In her donation to Trump Victory Peranio listed herself as a manager for FuFu International, a Florida company registered to Yang’s parents and currently involved in a bankruptcy proceeding. In March, Peranio told The Times she had been working as a receptionist at a massage parlor operated by Yang’s family when she made the $5,400 donation to Trump’s PAC. She refused to answer when asked if she had been reimbursed.

During a fundraiser for Trump’s reelection campaign hosted by the RNC at Mar-a-Lago on March 3, 2018, Yang got her first official photo with the president. He signed it in silver Sharpie and she posted it to Facebook a few weeks later.

The price of the photo was $50,000 – but Yang did not make a donation of that size. However, The New York Times reported that in the weeks around the event nine of Yang’s family members and business associates – including Peranio – made $5,400 donations each to Trump’s reelection committee.

As a joint fundraising committee, money given to Trump Victory would benefit both the RNC and Donald Trump, said Erin Chlopak, director of campaign finance strategy for the Campaign Legal Center. Because money raised benefits both, only the maximum $5,400 could go to Trump though the RNC can take in higher contributions. If money raised were to benefit only the candidate, the $5,400 cap would apply.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor of election law at Stetson University, said it’s possible Yang became eligible for the photo by showing she had bundled donations from a variety of people totaling at least $50,000.

The price of the photo also came with a ticket to the VIP dinner, hosted in Mar-a-Lago’s ornate ballroom.

Yang spent the event mingling with other VIP guests, carrying her signature rhinestone-encrusted MAGA clasp purse. Sometime during the festivities, she snapped photos with then-Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam and U.S. Rep. Brian Mast.

The photos from the event were featured on the website for her consulting company, where she advertised “a chance to interact with the president” to Chinese business people.

A spokesperson for the RNC told the Herald that the organization takes every step possible to ensure donations are made legally and that foreign citizens are not able to contribute.

The White House declined to provide a statement for publication and the Trump Organization also did not respond to inquiries from the Herald.

Asked if Yang had reimbursed her for the donation to Trump, Peranio said she could not hear the question and ended the call.

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