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HIGHLAND BEACH, Fla. — The lawyer for the former owner of a Florida massage parlor says her client, who watched the Super Bowl with President Donald Trump, is just a hardworking Chinese immigrant "living the American dream" and despite media reports to the contrary has never tried to sell access to Trump.
Li "Cindy" Yang owns a number of massage parlors in South Florida, and once owned the Orchids of Asia Day Spa, where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft allegedly solicited prostitution. After Kraft's bust a selfie of Yang with the president at the Trump International resort's Super Bowl party went viral, followed by questions in the media about whether Yang had exploited her access to him.
Michelle Merson, one of the lawyers on a team representing Yang, told NBC News that the accusations have shocked her client, who has not been charged with anything.
"She is being accused of human trafficking, providing favors to Chinese politicians and businesses by selling access to the president," said Merson. "She's being accused of some very, very serious things that she is totally in the dark for… [and] she denies everything."
Though she sold the Orchids of Asia spa long ago, Yang continues to run other day spas, and she contributes money to political and charitable causes, said Merson. Since 2017 Yang has contributed $40,000 to Republican and pro-Trump PACS, according to a review of records, and locals say she was also known for buying tables at charity events around Palm Beach, sometimes paying in cash.
"As far as we know Ms. Yang was just excited about being involved in politics and charities and all kinds of things in this country," said Merson, acknowledging the firm has just started digging into her case, and had to hire a translator to help with the language barrier.
"I think she was just fascinated with Donald Trump the way a lot of people are."
Yang came to the U.S. in 2003, and her English can be hard to understand, according to people who know her from Palm Beach society, and who say racism and the language barrier might be playing a part in the media coverage of Yang.
"She seemed like a nice person, socially out and about," said Karyn Turk, a Palm Beach resident and conservative radio host who is married to one of the lawyers representing Yang.
Carol Brophy, who also appears in Yang's famous selfie with Donald Trump, said she does not know Yang, and said Yang "photo bombed" her "moment" with the president.
One of Yang’s other lawyers, Evan Turk, said "the evidence indicates that our client has been falsely accused in a manner that she may never recover from."
"Her name, her reputation and her honor have been destroyed," Turk added.
The White House said in a statement that the president does not know Yang.
Yang wants to clear her name, said Merson, and is worried about being linked to alleged sex trafficking. Kraft was arrested for soliciting prostitution as a byproduct of a larger law enforcement investigation of alleged human trafficking at area massage parlors. According to local police, women were brought from China on temporary work visas believing they would have legitimate jobs.
"She is scared, she is traumatized … she is in hiding," Merson said.
After the Miami Herald published her picture with Trump, Mother Jones reported on her company, GY Investments, and the company's website, which appeared to advertise opportunities to get close to President Trump for a price.
An archived and translated version of her now defunct website offers opportunities for "taking photos with President Trump" and an "opportunity to interact with the president, the Secretary of Commerce and other political figures."
Merson said Yang is misunderstood and will be ready to tell her story soon. She said Yang has not been contacted by any state or federal investigators and is not a member of Trump's Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago. Some in Palm Beach, however, say that in the past Yang seemed to have the kind of access to the club that members have. The initiation fee at Mar-a-Lago is $200,000, and annual dues are $14,000.
Berndt Lembcke, managing director of Mar-a-Lago, said the club never comments about members or membership.
Kraft has denied engaging in any illegal activity and has pleaded not guilty.