You Paid For it: $6.5 million massage therapy regulation fails to weed out prostitutes

A Look Inside Local Spas: A typical massage room inside the Yoshiko spa.

TAMPA BAY, Fla. (WFLA) — Last month, Venice police arrested three women for prostitution after raiding three massage parlors in that beach town. According to Department of Health (DOH) online records, Jin Lan Jin, Shengjuan Yang and Hua Xu still have “clear and active” massage therapy licenses issued by the DOH. We also discovered all three have prior histories of prostitution arrests or convictions.

How can that be?  We asked the Executive Director of the Florida Board of Massage to explain.

“I don’t know that I can,” said Kama Monroe. Monroe said she wasn’t familiar with the particulars of those Venice arrests, but insisted that confidentiality laws keep her from discussing the consequences of the most recent arrests last month.

“I can’t comment at all on it,” Monroe said.

Whatever has allowed those women to keep massage licenses is not isolated to their cases. Spotty enforcement and regulation of sex crimes in the massage profession happen all the time, according to our 8 on Your Side investigation of prostitution at licensed massage spas.

For example, Tampa police arrested two women for prostitution in massage spas on Kennedy Boulevard back in 2012. In those cases, neither woman had a state massage license, yet there is no record we can find of the Florida Department of Health citing them for unlicensed activity. Monroe tells us unlicensed activity is handled by a different office in the Department of Health and she has no idea how that works.

Another masseuse with ties to several massage spas on Kennedy Boulevard named Kyung Mahaffey was convicted of prostitution while operating as a masseuse in Jacksonville in 2009. The Department of Health didn’t file an administrative complaint against that woman’s license until five years later, and it took nearly two years longer for the Board of Massage to revoke her massage therapy license.

“It does seem a long time,” Monroe said.

The DOH blames the delay in prosecuting Mahaffey’s case on her failure to report her own prostitution arrest. Until 2015, the DOH operated on the honor system by requiring massage therapists to report their own arrests. Now there is fingerprinting, that in theory, will automatically catch arrests of licensees for prostitution and other crimes.

Monroe insists the state’s $6.5 million a year massage regulatory program that You Paid For is doing well, considering all of the challenges involved. She blames some of the delays in going after prostitutes on due process.

“I can tell you the board takes the crimes you’re talking about very seriously and when they turn up at the board, the board has zero tolerance for this sort of behavior,” Monroe said.

It all sounds more like an overdue process to us after our investigation of a dozen Asian-themed massage parlors located on or around Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway in Tampa. We discovered licensed massage therapists dressed in lingerie, advertisements for spas that imply sexual favors and dozens of online reviews of sexual services reported offered by specific women who work in a number of those Tampa spas.

Three years ago we also caught the DOH awarding massage therapy licenses to registered sex offenders and predators. That practice ended after state senator Jack Latvala saw our investigation and passed a law banning such practices.

After our recent investigation last month, two Tampa City Council members called for a crackdown on open prostitution that occurs in some of the city’s massage spas. But, what is the Florida Department of Health doing for its part?

Monroe tells 8 on Your Side her agency now holds twice as many “probable cause” hearings as it formerly did. Those hearings mark the first step toward suspending or revoking massage therapy licenses after prostitution has occurred, a process that we’ve seen drag out for years in some cases. By next year, the DOH will trade arrest and disciplinary data with other states to prevent offenders from moving state to state and obtaining new licenses.

Monroe said her agency tracks 50,000 licensed massage therapists. It does so with a staff of 64 regulatory investigators, 19 unlicensed activity investigators and 40 inspectors who visit massage establishments looking for problems. Beyond that, Monroe doesn’t have a new strategy for weeding sex workers out of the ranks of legitimate massage professionals.

“I can’t say I have any brilliant suggestions,” Monroe said.

Meanwhile, if anyone wants a massage from the three arrested massage therapists in Venice, online records indicate their licenses are still clear and active. If there is an investigation underway, the DOH can’t talk about it until or unless that agency determines there is “probable cause” for discipline.

“The board can’t act until the case is before them,” Monroe said.

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