Critics of Secretary of State Brian Kemp are calling for federal and state investigations into campaign donations from the massage industry, weeks after his allies called for probes involving Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s comments in a secretly recorded conversation.
The dueling calls for investigations come weeks ahead of an increasingly nasty July 24 runoff to decide the Republican nomination for governor. The winner faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in November.
The concerns about Kemp center on two Massage Envy clinics that face at least four complaints of therapists groping women during massages. The Board of Massage Therapy, under Kemp’s purview, has not sanctioned or revoked any of the accused therapists’ licenses, even though an investigator for his office looked into at least one complaint.
Three of the therapists still have active licenses, and the fourth lapsed with no public action taken by the state.
After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation revealed the owner of those clinics is a donor to Kemp’s campaign for governor, Cagle backers pounced. Chiropractor Patrick Greco gave $1,000 to Kemp, and in April he and his partner hosted a fundraising gala at their lavish estate in Madison, in a renovated antebellum home called the Honeymoon 1851 Mansion.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, in a letter sent to U.S. Attorney B.J. Pak over the weekend, called for a criminal investigation into a possible “quid pro quo scheme.” Noting accusations against other Massage Envy clinics and past donations from other owners, she said there “appears to be a direct connection between campaign support from Massage Envy franchisees in exchange for non-action and suppression of these horrific, repeated and ongoing cases of sexual assault.”
And Barry Morgan, Cobb County’s solicitor general, asked Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr on Sunday to launch an investigation and “advise your client on the best practices to protect victims in cases like these.”
Morgan related his office’s involvement in the case of Brandon Knox, who pleaded guilty to molesting a woman in 2011 at a Massage Envy clinic that isn’t owned by Greco. He said the victim believed the Secretary of State’s Office would take action, but nothing happened.
The state even allowed Knox to renew his license in 2014, before it lapsed in 2016, Morgan said.
“The license should never be allowed to lapse after conviction,” Morgan’s letter said. “It is too easy for these individuals to move to another facility and potentially sexually assault someone else.”
Kemp’s campaign has declined to talk about Greco’s fundraiser or say how much money it raised. In a statement, spokesman Ryan Mahoney said it was up to Carr and board members appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to hold licensees accountable, not Kemp. But he does hold sway over dozens of licensing boards’ ability to conduct investigations, since their investigators, executive directors and support staff are all employees of the Secretary of State’s Office.
The campaign says it has refunded hundreds of thousands in donations from industries his office regulates but did nothing wrong in taking money from business owners such as Greco. State law makes a distinction between donations from regulated companies, which aren’t permitted, and donations from individuals at those companies, which are.
A pending ethics complaint against the Kemp campaign, filed by a Cagle supporter, cites examples of contractors, investment advisers and an auctioneering firm donating to him.
Mahoney questioned the motives of the Republicans calling for investigations, who are Cagle supporters, and criticized Unterman as “mentally unstable.”
“It is our hope that, for her own sake, she will retract these baseless, politically motivated statements before facing serious legal action,” he said. “We also hope that Senator Unterman will seek immediate medical attention before she hurts herself or someone else.”
Greco has repeatedly declined to comment on the claims and did not return a call from the AJC on Monday. Massage Envy has said in a statement that it cannot comment on specifics of the investigations.
Several GOP legislators and Democratic leaders earlier asked Pak and Carr to probe whether Cagle offered to trade legislative action for campaign funding after he was heard saying in a secret recording that he backed “bad public policy” to undercut a political rival.
There was no immediate comment from aides to Pak and Carr, but it’s unlikely either would launch an investigation this close to a divisive political election.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is covering the issues and candidates in a busy election year. Previous stories have focused on topics such as gun rights, immigration and tax policy. Look for more at PoliticallyGeorgia.com as the state approaches the next political milepost, the July 24 Republican runoff for governor.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.
With the largest team in the state, the AJC reports what’s really going on with your tax dollars and your elected officials. Subscribe today. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.
Your subscription to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism. Visit the AJC's Georgia Navigator for the latest in Georgia politics.