Pushing for legislation: Local business owner welcomes extra scrutiny

Rita LeBleu

The shooting of eight people at three Atlanta area “spas” comes on the heels of the release of a recent legislative audit of the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy. The audit summary stated a need for the LBMT to improve its regulation of the massage therapy profession. This would include a more aggressive role in shutting down businesses that are fronts for prostitution and sex trafficking like those in Atlanta and Acworth, Ga., where the shootings occurred.

Machelle Phillips, licensed massage therapist and owner of Massage Lake Charles, welcomes the scrutiny, and was surprised it took six years for an inspector to visit her business a couple of years ago.

“A lot of us who are doing things the right way have, on occasion, been slapped with fines for not filling out our paper work correctly for example, when massage establishments that are covers for human trafficking and prostitution are allowed to operate,” Phillips said. “It tarnishes all of our reputations and it’s dismissive of how we’ve struggled to be known as a professional wellness and medical service.”

Calcasieu Parish has around 300 licensed therapists, but far fewer massage establishments that employ more than one therapist. Louisiana licensed therapists complete a minimum of 500 hours of instruction and pass the national exam.

In a 2019 FBI prostitution sting, 11 individuals at six Lake Charles massage parlors were arrested. More recent arrests have been made in Lafayette.

Board leaders prefer to leave allegations of prostitution and human trafficking to authorities such as the FBI, saying it has limited authority and resources to address the audit’s recommendations, for example imposing fines on unlicensed businesses. Phillips says if the board steps up, fewer individuals will assume they can call legitimate establishments for those services, as they have called Massage Lake Charles.

“Sometimes I ask a few questions,” she said. “I understand that this is a common thing in other countries and some of these men travel a lot, but I want to know what made them call Massage Lake Charles when my online website is very professional.”

Kathie Lea does not agree that the Atlanta shootings were racially motivated.

“Most of the victims were Asian,” Lea said. “But the guy claimed he was a sexual addict and he wanted to get rid of the temptation.”

 Lea has been in the profession 35 years and working in government relations nearly as long. She is the government relations chair for the Louisiana Chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association.

“The ‘massage parlor’ issue was always out there, but not nearly to this extent,” she said. “The latest wave, if you will, began about 2011, and it proliferated quickly.”

 It’s nationwide, according to Lea.

“The presence of these establishments, which are houses of ‘ill repute,’ masquerading as massage establishments, promotes a culture of sexually oriented massage that presents a real threat to legitimately trained, practicing therapists,” she said.

During fiscal years 2017 through 2019, LBMT received and resolved 140 complaints containing 193 allegations including sexual misconduct, operating without a license and operating a sexually oriented business, according to the audit summary. Of these 140 complaints, 25 percent resulted in disciplinary action or were given a cease and desist order. The remaining complaints were dismissed or the investigation was closed without further action, according to the review by Legislative State Auditor Thomas Cole.       

“I understand the board’s authority, but I was surprised about the number of incidents,” said Carrie Chaumont, Director and Owner of Louisiana Institute of Massage Therapy, Lake Charles.

The audit also found that “LBMT does not have an effective process to identify unlicensed massage therapists and establishments. As a result, 115 establishments may be operating without a license as of September 2020. In addition, when LBMT identifies an unlicensed business and issues a cease and desist order, it does not monitor the establishment to ensure it remains closed. LBMT also does not impose fines or penalties for establishments that are operating without a license, even though it is authorized by state law to do so.Chaumont agrees with the auditors’ recommendation of more policing of businesses by the LBMT.

“Protecting the public is ultimately their responsibility,” she said.

“While the LBMT’s job is to protect the public and regulate the profession, the association’s role, in my opinion, is to protect and advocate for our members and indeed the profession as a whole and to be a watchdog over government regulation” Lea said.

Lea and the association’s lobbyist will be proposing legislation this session to help with these challenges highlighted by the audit and to bring awareness to the issues.””

A recent audit summary stated a need for the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy to improve its regulation of the massage therapy profession. Some unscrupulous establishments are casting a bad light on the profession as a whole.

Special to the American Press

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