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Thursday September 19th, 2019 8:47AM

Mar-a-Lago employee says Chinese woman acted 'weird'

By The Associated Press
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A receptionist at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club told a federal jury Tuesday that a Chinese businesswoman charged with trespassing and lying to Secret Service agents was acting "weird and strange" when she entered the resort's lobby last spring, causing her to confront the woman and to alert an agent posted nearby.

Ariela Grumaz said Yujing Zhang stood out when she entered the club's ornate lobby on March 30 as she violated rules by taking photos and video, gawked at the furnishings and wore a gray evening dress at 1 p.m. She said knows the members and most of their guests and they know not to take photos of the lobby and are used to its furnishings. Secret Service photos showed it's bedecked with chandeliers, busts and intricate tile walls.

Grumaz said the 33-year-old Shanghai consultant tried to walk past her desk without stopping, but she called Zhang over before she could enter another room. She said Zhang told her she was there for a Chinese-American United Nations friendship event that evening and tried to show her an invitation on her cellphone that was in Mandarin, which Grumaz doesn't speak. Grumaz said no such event was scheduled, so she asked the nearby agent to stay with Zhang as she went to double-check with a manager. She said she then alerted one of the lead agents, Sam Ivanovich.

"She was acting weird and strange," Grumaz said. "I did not know how she got into the premises." She said Zhang went into the women's restroom at one point. At the agents' request, Grumaz went in and said she found Zhang texting while pacing.

Zhang, who is representing herself, could get six years if convicted of trespassing and lying to Secret Service agents. She has said she is innocent.

Ivanovich testified that Zhang was initially cooperative, turning over two Chinese passports and allowing him to search her purse. He said she also told him about the UN friendship event and said she had come early to take photos and familiarize herself with the grounds. He said that when he told her no such event was scheduled, she showed him the same invitation she had shown Grumaz. He reiterated previous testimony that Zhang had told agents at the front gate that she was there to use the pool. Confusion because her family name matches a member's had gained her admission.

He said Zhang did not have a swimsuit in her possession. He said Zhang eventually became "aggressive" as agents examined her cellphone and she was taken to the Secret Service's West Palm Beach office.

There, she said she had purchased a travel package that included the friendship event from a man she knew only as "Charles" through a Chinese internet service similar to Facebook. Prosecutors have said a translator will testify later Tuesday that Charles had sent Zhang two notifications before she left China saying that the Mar-a-Lago event was cancelled, which she acknowledged by demanding a refund. Zhang's former attorneys believe the mystery man is Charles Lee, who ran the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which is not affiliated with the U.N. He was photographed at least twice with Cindy Yang, a Republican donor and former Florida massage parlor owner who organized events at Mar-a-Lago.

Ivanovich testified that Zhang was carrying four cellphones, a computer and other electronic gear, saying she feared it would be stolen if she left it in her hotel room. Ivanovich testified agents later found $8,000 and electronic gear in her room in the open.

Zhang fired her public defenders in June. District Judge Roy Altman has repeatedly asked her to reconsider that decision and has grown frustrated with her at times. On Tuesday he stepped in on occasion when a defense attorney would have objected to a prosecution question or witness's answer, for example asking prosecutors outside the jury's presence what testimony about Zhang's behavior had to do with the charges. They said they wanted to show she wasn't a tourist who accidentally stumbled into Mar-a-Lago, but did it on purpose knowing she wasn't supposed to be there. He allowed it to stand.

Zhang, who has usually been silent, objected a few times, for example challenging the introduction of Mar-a-Lago photos and her cellphone, saying they were "sensitive." Altman rejected her challenges.

Meanwhile in China, a foreign affairs ministry spokeswoman told reporters Tuesday that anyone who believes Zhang is a spy or otherwise employed by the Chinese government is engaged in "science fiction."

Hua Chunying said her government demands "that the U.S. side handle (Zhang's case) in a fair and proper manner according to law, and effectively protect the safety and legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizen involved."

Closing arguments may be given later Tuesday if Zhang decides not to mount a defense.

_____

AP reporter Ken Moritsugu in Beijing contributed to this report.

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