WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) - A former promoter of galas held at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club filed a libel lawsuit Monday against the Miami Herald over a story that she claims falsely portrays her as the one-time head of a day spa prostitution ring.
Li Juan Yang Gong aka Cindy Yang was cast into the spotlight in February, after a Jupiter day spa that she purportedly used to own became targeted in a prostitution sting, which yielded misdemeanor solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others.
Yang was neither charged nor accused of any wrongdoing in the case.
In the wake of Kraft's charges, the Miami Herald published a string of investigative pieces that reported Yang used to own the spa and sold it around 2013, several years before it became the subject of the prostitution investigation. The coverage included allegations of prostitution at other South Florida spas purportedly owned at one time by Yang or her family, under the Tokyo Day Spa brand name.
The Herald's stories also brought to light that Yang had a busy business booking Chinese nationals on trips to luxurious galas at the Mar-a-Lago resort club in Palm Beach, where they could rub shoulders with local high rollers, members of Trump's family and even Trump himself.
The newspaper published photos of Yang posing with Republican higher-ups including Sarah Palin, U.S. Senator Rick Scott and President Trump at various fundraisers and events at the sprawling club.
Yang, represented by attorney Evan Turk, claims the Herald's March 8 story on her connection to Mar-a-Lago was politically motivated and "reads as if it is the playbook for the anti-President Trump manifesto.”
Her lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court alleges the story relies on unverified online comments and reviews to insinuate Tokyo Day Spa locations that Yang owned were operating as houses of prostitution. As noted in the complaint, the Herald reported certain Tokyo Day Spa locations appeared on rubmaps.com and adultsearch.com, where users pinpoint places where sexual gratification is sold.
Pre-suit correspondence between opposing counsel shows that the Herald stood by its reporting amid threats of the lawsuit's filing.
"First, your client had the opportunity to state what she understood to be the facts, and the Herald reported her position," the newspaper's attorney Sanford Bohrer wrote, noting the Herald briefly communicated with Yang prior to publication.
"Second, the Herald largely relied on police reports, which is privileged under Florida law," the lawyer wrote.
The newspaper's attorney pointed out that the March 8 article stated clearly that Yang had sold the Jupiter business long before it became the subject of the high-profile prostitution sting.
The Herald attorney in later pre-suit correspondence warned that the litigation "will be quite expensive" with regard to attorney fees as well as travel expenses, as "there will be many witnesses, including the Trump family and associates." Bohrer also threatened to file for relief under Florida's anti-SLAPP statute, which provides for attorney fee awards against those who submit legal claims to intimidate or silence critics.
Yang seeks damages for libel against McClatchy Co., the Miami Herald's publisher.
She claims that the coverage caused her Mar-a-Lago event booking business to dry up and that she can no longer attend events there. She says she also suffered sleep deprivation and lost her role as an "executive volunteer with the Republican Executive Committee."
At the center of the lawsuit is the Herald's coverage of claims by a whistleblower who purportedly worked at a Tokyo Day Spa and reported prostitution activity there to police. According to Yang, the Herald coverage failed to clarify whether she owned the spa at the time.
In the final correspondence before the suit was filed, the Herald's attorney said: "The most likely result [of the litigation] is not just that your client will lose ... but that you and she may be liable to the Herald for the fees it pays us for the defense."
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