More massage licenses suspended in probe of links to prostitution, human trafficking

Sep 27, 2012

The following article was published in The Florida Current on September 27, 2012:

More massage licenses suspended in probe of links to prostitution, human trafficking

By James Call

Florida Secretary of Health John Armstrong has suspended the licenses of 161 massage therapist in a transcript-buying scandal that investigators think may be tied to a human trafficking.  Armstrong would not respond directly to questions about the school where the fraud occurred because of an ongoing investigation. 

“One has to wonder why it is that there would be this intense interest in fraudulent massage therapy licenses,” Armstrong said. “There has been ongoing concern expressed by law enforcement and we have been supporting their active investigations.”

No incidents of prostitution or human trafficking have been linked to the 161 suspended licenses, but the state has its suspicions.  Law enforcement officials have connected the industry to prostitution and human trafficking.

Investigators allege at least 200 people paid up to $15,000 to obtain phony transcripts that enabled them to be licensed by the state as massage therapists. When Armstrong announced the first round of suspensions Sept. 20, Clearwater Police Chief Anthony Holloway told The Tampa Tribune that under the guise of a state license, “You open up an avenue for trafficking.”

In April,  the Clearwater Area Task Force on Human Trafficking assisted New Port Richey Police in a raid of a strip plaza massage parlor. Neighbors had complained its employees would loiter in front of the storefront window wearing only a slip. One woman was charged with prostitution, the business owner was cited for violating the city’s commercial zoning law because there was evidence people were living in the building.

“The Department of Health is committed to retaining the integrity of the massage therapy industry here in Florida,” Armstrong said Thursday.

 A 2010 report by the Center for Advancement of Human Rights found Florida as the third most popular destination for human traffickers and that businesses such as massage parlors, restaurants and farms are typical places for finding victims. Researchers think up to 50,000 people are brought into the country annually and forced into labor for low or no pay. The report cited a role licensing and regulatory officials could play in stopping the practice.

During the 2012 legislative session lawmakers passed a bill allowing police accompanied by a health inspector to enter a massage establishment without a warrant and request identification of the operator and employees.  Florida law requires massage parlors to obtain a $255 license from the Department of Health and hire only state-licensed massage therapists.

This month Armstrong surveyed the transcript security procedures followed by the 197 Florida message therapy schools.  He is compiling the best practices regarding background checks of students, auditing of transcripts and computer security.

“A valid transcript from a licensed massage therapy school is an essential part of valid licensure. The Department of Health remains vigilant to ensure the integrity of the licensure process,” Armstrong said.

Armstrong plans to recommend more secure transcript procedures at the Oct. 25meeting of the Florida Massage Therapy Board.

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