When massage therapists cross the line, state board rarely acts

Weak laws, regulators’ lack of resources leave customers at risk of sexual abuse

The woman lay frozen on the massage table, exposed, vulnerable, not knowing what to do.

Her therapist had grabbed her underwear and moved it to expose her buttocks, then he started massaging her backside so hard that she hurt, according to a complaint she filed with state regulators. She ordered him repeatedly to stop, but he ignored her, she reported.

It was late in the evening, and she was the last client at the Massage Envy clinic in Midtown. Her choices, she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, were either to endure, or flee the room without her clothes on. Fearing for her safety, she stayed.

"It was like my mind went blank," she said. "When it was over, I just stayed there in the room because I was so shocked it had happened."

That shock lasted several days. Then she decided to fight back by going after the therapist’s license. After she reported him to Massage Envy, he was fired. But the state licensing agency charged with protecting the public, the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy, did nothing after she complained. He’s now working at another spa.

Such outcomes are typical when it comes to massage therapy and sexual misconduct allegations in Georgia. Twenty-five of the 26 sexual misconduct complaints lodged with the state over the past three years resulted in zero public disciplinary action — no license revocations, no license suspensions, no therapists placed on probation, no reprimands, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.

In many ways, the massage board has been set up to fail by weak laws and sparse investigative resources, the AJC found. A new law has been proposed to beef up the board's authority, though the AJC review found the board rarely uses powers it already has.

“The current system is a complete failure,” said state Rep. Brett Harrell, R-Snellville, who opposes the proposed law and says the state instead should end licensure of massage therapists. “Is that license providing protection from harm for the general public? … Absolutely not. So what is it doing?”

Board Chairman Craig Knowles said the board has been working to set standards for legitimate practitioners who treat pain, fatigue and stress, distinguishing them from illicit parlor businesses that harbor prostitution. “The whole purpose of having a board is public protection,” Knowles said. “It’s not to protect the licensee, it’s to protect the public.”

Georgia Board of Massage Therapy Chairman Craig Knowles said the board is hamstrung by weak laws and limited investigative resources. “There should be more that we could do, but we’re limited by the law,” he said. “If we had more investigators, then cases would move faster.” BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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He blamed Harrell for blocking the reform bill and said the lawmaker’s proposal to abolish the board would be “horrible for the state.”

"The House Bill that would actually correct a lot of the things you're talking about was shut down by that one man," the chairman said. "Brett Harrell is all about deregulation."

Yet the state regulatory board leaves even criminally-accused therapists free to keep working on unsuspecting clients, even though existing law says it can launch its own investigations and revoke licenses for any "unprofessional, immoral, unethical, deceptive, or deleterious conduct or practice harmful to the public."

Public allegations, active licenses

The AJC found just one case in the past three years where the massage board used its power to pull a license from a therapist accused of sexual misconduct. The action against BLC Massage owner Jianghong Wang, accused of abusing 13 women, came in August 2016, two months after he'd been indicted in Gwinnett County.

The AJC found one other board case in that time involving a therapist accused of sexual misconduct, although the board order doesn't reveal that. Pyong Ye Toombs surrendered her license in September 2014 with no reason stated. A year earlier, however, Toombs had been charged with pimping and keeping a place of prostitution after Roswell police raided Doshi Spa. After she gave up her license, prosecutors dropped the charges.

Knowles said he can’t comment on the handling of specific cases, noting that state law forbids him from releasing investigative findings.

In other cases where licensed massage therapists made the news for alleged criminal sexual activity, state records show the board taking no public action, and Knowles said he can’t recall it issuing private orders in cases involving sexual misconduct:

• Last summer, a woman told Roswell police that therapist Brian Sams inappropriately touched her at the Massage Envy on Holcomb Bridge Road. Sams was charged with misdemeanor sexual battery, and police said they later received at least three other complaints about inappropriate behavior. Detective Jennifer Bennett said both she and the accuser notified the state board about the case. Still, Sams remains licensed.

• In May 2017, a worker at Yuan Massage in Suwanee solicited an undercover Forsyth County Sheriff's deputy for a sex act. Feng Wang pleaded guilty in March to masturbation for hire, yet she remains licensed.

• A similar sting operation by Woodstock police led to two arrests at Lily Massage in July 2017, including still-licensed massage therapist ShuQing Fei, who faces a misdemeanor charge of masturbation for hire.

• Therapist Brandon Knox's license lapsed in 2016 with no public disciplinary orders, though he had pleaded to misdemeanor criminal battery after being accused in 2012 of sexual assault at a Massage Envy clinic in Cobb County. The victim, who was also a receptionist at the clinic, reported that he put his fingers in her vagina and propositioned her. In a civil suit, she claimed that Knox had also previously been accused of touching a client inappropriately.

Knowles and another board member interviewed by the AJC said they don’t always find out about criminal allegations.

“Any case where there is proof of wrongdoing, the board takes action,” Knowles said. “But we have to be aware of it, and just because it was on the news doesn’t mean the board’s aware of it.”

No one is required to keep the board, which consists of all volunteers, in the loop.

The board falls under the umbrella of the Secretary of State's Office, where it shares seven investigators with about 40 other regulatory boards. It shares its executive director and four administrative staffers with six other boards, including those for chiropractors, podiatrists and veterinarians.

No one is assigned to monitor news reports or set up Google alerts about massage therapists being arrested, nor is anyone keeping up with criminal indictments, convictions, or civil complaintsthe AJC found.

What’s more, state law has no mandatory reporting requirements. If a clinic fires a therapist, it doesn’t have to tell the board. Therapists don’t have to report each other if they suspect violations. Other state agencies that come across violations aren’t required to tell the board. The same goes for police.

Even if the board does learn about an arrest, that alone may not be enough to pull a license, Knowles said.

Pam Nichols, a member of the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy, said sexual misconduct complaints often go nowhere because accusers back out. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Though state law gives regulatory boards broad leeway to revoke and suspend licenses, board members said they are wary of being sued for depriving licensees of their livelihood, and attorneys from the state Attorney General’s Office have advised the board to follow rules of hearings and due process. So the board still must gather its own evidence, Knowles said.

“It’s not fair to be penalized without the ability to defend yourself,” he said.

And accusers often won’t follow through, board member Pam Nichols said.

"A lot of people want to make a complaint," she said, "but then when they realize that they actually have to stand up and say, 'Hey, it's me, I made this complaint, and this is what happened,' they back out. And just like any court case, if you can't prove it, there's nothing you can do."

In 2017, a woman complained to the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy that a therapist working at the Midtown Massage Envy spa pulled her underwear and roughly massaged her buttocks, even after she repeatedly told him to stop. The board took no action against his license. JOHNNY EDWARDS / JREDWARDS@AJC.COM

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The Massage Envy complaint

That wasn’t the case with the woman who filed the board complaint against the Midtown Massage Envy.

After the Dec. 26, 2016 incident, she found out that chiropractor Patrick Greco owned the business, and she asked to meet with him and the manager. She said she knew the therapist hadn’t complied with standards, which include draping clients to ensure safety and privacy and immediately stopping when a client says to.

“I told them what happened,” she told the AJC, which does not identify those who may have been victims of sexual misconduct. “I said I know he broke your policy. I have on my chart that I don’t want my gluts massaged. When I say he moved my underwear, I mean he split them down the middle aggressively … I told them I told him to stop four times and he didn’t.”

She also filled out the board’s online complaint form. After the meeting with Greco, the woman said, the state called and she spoke with two investigative agents.

When the investigators contacted the clinic, it fired the therapist. The woman said she didn’t know the board hadn’t disciplined him until she talked with the AJC. “From the conversations I had with them, I thought they were going to take his license,” she said. “It’s like my complaint was never taken seriously.”

In an interview with the AJC, the therapist she accused said a state investigator spoke to him once about the complaint, but he never heard back. He has since gone on to work at two other clinics.

He admitted he shouldn’t have massaged her buttocks, since she had put in her chart that she didn’t want that. Massage Envy could get so busy, therapists wouldn’t bother looking at the forms, he said. He denied pulling her underwear or continuing after she told him to stop, or having any sexual motivation.

Asked about any other complaints against him, he said that another woman had later complained that he hadn’t covered her properly, then that while stretching her leg he had pulled on her underwear. He denied doing that, too.

Male massage therapists, he said, are in a vulnerable position — no chaperones, no cameras, and sometimes dealing with vindictive clients who want free massages. “It’s a risky job,” the therapist said. “If a female client decides to lie on you, what can you say? It’s your word against theirs.”

The AJC is not naming him because he isn’t identified in any board order or criminal complaint.

Greco, the franchise owner, declined to speak to the AJC and referred questions to Massage Envy’s corporate office. The AJC received a written statement from the company saying, “We cannot comment on the specifics of any specific investigation by a franchisee, but we can tell you that the therapist is no longer employed by the franchise location.”

In December, the Atlanta private equity firm Roark Capital Group, which acquired Massage Envy in 2012, issued a plan to address more than 180 sexual assault allegations across the country. The plan, posted on the company's website, includes mandatory background screening for all therapists annually. It doesn't call for notifying police in sex abuse cases, but rather for franchisees to offer customers a private room to make their own calls to law enforcement.

Craig Knowles, chairman of the Georgia Board of Massage Therapy, presides over a meeting last month at the Secretary of State’s licensing office in Macon. Knowles says the board protects the public from both unqualified and criminal practitioners, and a lawmaker’s proposal to end massage licensing “would be horrible for the state.” BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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The proposed solution

The American Massage Therapy Association wants to see stronger regulation, and for the past three years has been pushing an overhaul of Georgia massage regulations.

House Bill 915, which has both Republican and Democrat sponsors, would mandate reporting of some violations to the board. Licensed massage therapists would have to report any other therapist they believe is unable to practice because of alcohol or drug use and those criminally convicted of sexual offenses or drug crimes. Employers would have to report any firings or resignations resulting from impairment or drug or sex crime convictions.

Nothing in the proposed law would require businesses to report an employee after they’ve been arrested for a sex crime, much less complaints or firings where police aren’t involved.

The bill would also increase the fines the board can levy, prohibit ads that show people depicted or posed in a way to appeal to prurient interests, and give the board authority to conduct inspections of facilities, equipment and personnel. At present, it only can inspect during investigations.

The bill would also cut off another loophole for illicit activity by bringing bodyworks treatment — a practice that can be nearly indistinguishable from massage, yet exempted from regulation — under the board’s purview.

Much of the language is geared to protecting the profession from prostitutes, pimps and sex traffickers.

Clinical massage associate, Jane Johnson, at her therapy room in Marietta.

Credit: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

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Credit: Hyosub Shin / hshin@ajc.com

"It is one of the most frustrating things in the profession, striving to always be the most professional in the midst of those few that don't work professional," said Jane Johnson, owner of Clinical Massage Associates in Marietta and the massage board's first chairwoman, from 2006 to 2013. "Because we have gone so far with getting licensure in Georgia. That in itself was a miracle."

One of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, said massage therapists are being swept into cities’ and counties’ battles against the sex-for-hire industry. Just to open their doors, therapists can be subjected to municipal fees of up to $1,500, or forbidden to open in malls close to churches or schools. The bill would limit such local government regulations by giving the board broader authority to set statewide standards.

“Licensed massage therapists that are really above board and legitimate are often being lumped in with the questionable, more for-pleasure masseuses,” Cooper said. “They’re making it where the ones that are truly trained in massage and helping people with pain and muscle problems, and athletes, they can’t find places to be in business.”

When HB 915 reached the Regulated Industries committee this year, Rep. Harrell, its vice chair, proposed a substitute bill that would have abolished the board. He pointed to two prior reports, from 1997 and 2002, saying the industry doesn’t need regulating because the public can determine who is and who isn’t a qualified therapist.

"If someone claimed there was illegal touching, I would hope the first phone call would be to the police," Harrell said. "My initial reactions, if I was an employer in a situation like that, would not to be to call my regulatory board that issued my license."

Now the board will go through a review process, probably during the summer, to determine if licensing is still warranted.

About massage therapy

Over the past 15 years, massage therapy has grown into a $16 billion industry that is estimated to serve more than 47 million adults a year, with therapists working in hospitals, nursing homes, shopping center spas, and as sole practitioners.

Georgia started licensing therapists in 2005 to protect the public from unqualified practitioners. The Georgia Board of Massage Therapy has the authority to set education and training requirements and promote high standards. It also can issue, deny, suspend or revoke licenses and conduct investigations.

The board also can impose fines, capped at $500 for each violation.

Most of the 55 public actions posted on the board’s website since 2015 involved therapists who practiced without a license or failed to complete continuing education requirements.

Seven orders in that time involved therapists with criminal convictions. Most did not cost a therapist his or her license. Among those still licensed is a therapist who had two felony convictions and had served time in prison in Louisiana.