The normally obscure Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy is under pointed legislative scrutiny, including vows that regulators should either improve their oversight of massage parlors or the Legislature will pass the necessary laws to do so.

The controversy stems from a state audit that was highly critical of how the massage industry is monitored and the reaction of board leaders to the criticism.

The audit, which was released earlier this month, accused the board of running a lax operation, dismissing complaints without setting up solid criteria to do so and taking a hands-off approach to allegations of human trafficking and prostitution that often hovers over the industry.

Board officials also disputed seven of 11 recommendations made by interim Legislative Auditor Thomas Cole, which is unusual and which angered leaders of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council.

Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria and vice-chairman of the council, said turning down so many of the auditor's suggestions sent up a red flag.

Cole said the board should establish a process to identify unlicensed therapists, craft a way to monitor sites that have been issued cease and desist orders and impose fines and penalties on centers that continue to operate without a license.

He said the panel should also establish written criteria for dismissing complaints, guidelines for when and how often to check establishments, compare its fines to those in other states and develop guidance to help ensure discipline is handled fairly.

The board disputed all seven recommendations.

"They kept giving reasons why they could not improve their operations instead of solutions of how to," Luneau said. "That was problematic to me."

Luneau said during a meeting to discuss the audit March 8 that massage regulators should consider increasing their policing of the profession or the Legislature will do so.

The audit also said a report by a non-profit group called the Polaris Project estimates there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the U.S., and that women engaging in prostitution at those sites may be victims of human trafficking. 

"According to Polaris, the massage therapy profession has been subject to harmful stereotypes that sexualize the profession," according to the audit. "As a result, massage therapists are regularly harassed, propositioned and assaulted by customers." 

But Cole's review said board officials told state auditors that, when it comes to allegations of prostitution and human trafficking, they leave it "to the professionals," including the FBI and local law enforcement.

However, the Legislature has made the monitoring of possible human trafficking a priority issue. Luneau said no state agency can avoid it.

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The board was set up in 1992.

The panel and its three-person staff oversee 2,784 massage therapists and 628 establishments.

The board reviews and approves license applications, investigates complaints and is supposed to discipline sites that violate the law.

It is funded solely through fees, which totaled about $514,000 for the financial year than ended on June 30, 2020, the latest snapshot available.

The executive director is Rhonda McManus, a 10-year veteran who is paid $90,584 per year.

McManus said Thursday she is not authorized to speak publicly and referred questions to Sallye Raymond, chairwoman of the board.

Raymond did not respond to a request for comment sent through the board office.

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, chairman of the advisory council, said the audit shows there was an "absolute failure" by the board to spell out procedures for properly handling complaints about massage parlors.

Ivey also said regulators "have not taken the attention that they should have" on issues related to human trafficking, "which is something that the Legislature has clearly made a priority."

"We just need to take some corrective measures," Ivey said. "It sounds like they are willing to work with us."

Ivey asked board leaders to turn over their written policies to lawmakers, which officials said has been done.

The board agreed with four of Cole's recommendations.

Those include spelling out criteria for inspectors to determine whether centers are operating as sexually-oriented businesses; tracking completed inspections; find training for staff and board members to identify signs of human trafficking and improving its  coordination with law enforcement.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.