A criminal case against a Chinese woman accused of gaining unlawful access to US President Donald Trump's Florida resort has, for the second time in recent weeks, trained the spotlight on an organisation selling clients access to prominent politicians around the world.
According to a criminal complaint, Zhang Yujing told Secret Service agents guarding Trump's Mar-a-Lago property on Saturday that she was visiting the resort to use the pool, then later told reception staff that she was there to attend a "United Nations Friendship" event, to which she had been invited by a Chinese man identified only as Charles.
Both details appear to point towards the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association (UNCFA), an NGO whose recently deleted website shows numerous photographs of the organisation's founder, Charles Lee, with prominent public figures, including what the site says is Trump himself and former UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.
The association, which sells photo-ops and personal meetings with political heavyweights to Chinese clients, says on its defunct website that it is a "civil society" participant of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
The Chinese Friendship Association does not appear on a UN list of NGO associations registered with DESA.
Lee, who is listed on the UNCFA site numerous times under the moniker "Prince Charles", hung up when contacted on Wednesday, but advertisements posted as recently as Tuesday to a WeChat account linked to his number promised photographs and opportunities to interact with prominent political and business figures.
One such advertisement, posted the same day criminal charges against Zhang were made public, offered clients a photograph and dialogue with former president Barack Obama during a June 2019 event at the US Military Academy at West Point - an event a West Point representative said did not exist.
Other advertisements, such as meetings with Microsoft's Bill Gates and former president George W. Bush at an upcoming forum in Dallas, Texas, and an appearance this month in New York featuring Bill and Hillary Clinton - apparently refer to scheduled events.
According to The Miami Herald , the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association recruited clients for several events advertised by Cindy Yang, the day spa magnate and Republican Party fundraiser who was thrust into the spotlight when a Florida massage parlour she used to own was caught up in a sex trafficking and prostitution sting in March.
Trump and Yang were pictured together at a Mar-a-Lago event in January 2018 organised by the children's charity Young Adventurers. This year's repeat of that event - slated to feature a guest appearance by Trump's sister Elizabeth Trump-Grau - was scheduled for March 30, the same day that Zhang, 32, attempted to gain entry to Mar-a-Lago.She has been charged with making false statements and illegally entering a restricted area.
Saturday's event had been cancelled after scrutiny into Yang's practices, which, like Lee's, offered paying clients access to Trump family members and Republican politicians.
A number of people, including senior congressional Democrats and the pro-democracy advocacy group Common Cause, have called for criminal investigations into whether Yang facilitated "straw donations" on behalf of foreign clients, which are illegal under US campaign finance law, and whether she could be part of a foreign influence campaign by Beijing.
"She had a very influential position and could potentially bring other Chinese nationals within the president's orbit, and potentially exert influence or certainly bring up topics that could be favourable to whatever particular interests [those Chinese nationals] have," said Joseph Campbell, a former assistant director of the FBI's criminal investigative division.
A statement from Yang's lawyer shared with the South China Morning Post by the Asian GOP, where Yang previously worked as a director of community engagement, denied any relationship between Yang and Lee, as well as acquaintance between Yang and Zhang.
"Our client has stated that she does not know the woman who was arrested at Mar-a-Lago this weekend," said Evan Turk, the lawyer. "The Dr. Lee that has been mentioned in several articles was pictured with our client twice. Beyond that, she states that she has no relationship with him. They were guests at the same event. That's all."
Cindy Yang 'opposed foreign money crackdown' at Trump fundraisersAccording to the criminal complaint, Zhang told police that she had been advised by "Charles" to attend the Mar-a-Lago event on Saturday and "attempt to speak with a member of the president's family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations".
Zhang was carrying four mobile phones, a computer, an external hard drive, a thumb drive containing malware and two Chinese passports, the complaint said.
Senate Democrats wrote the FBI on Wednesday demanding an investigation into security at Mar-a-Lago, The Washington Post reported. An FBI spokeswoman would not confirm whether an inquiry was under way.
Campbell said it would be logical for the FBI to be involved in any investigation carried out by the Secret Service, which is responsible for safeguarding the president and his residences, given the counter-intelligence implications of a foreign national carrying malware into Mar-a-Lago.
The FBI "will want to do a full scope [investigation] on Zhang herself - everything about her," said Campbell, now an anti-bribery and corruption investigator at Navigant. "Where did she come from, how long has she been in the United States, who are her associates?"