Legislative Audit Advisory Council (copy) (copy)

The Legislative Audit Advisory Council, shown here in an earlier meeting, met earlier this year after a state audit criticized the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy.

A bill that would overhaul the duties of the Louisiana Board of Massage Therapy after a state audit blasted the board won final approval Thursday in the Legislature.

The proposal, House Bill 531, cleared the House 101-0 - and the Senate 36-0.

Both chambers approved the measure earlier, but a House-Senate negotiating committee was called to iron out a minor difference between the two versions.

HB531 would require the board to send fingerprint samples submitted by license applicants to the FBI and state law enforcement to check for any criminal activity. It would also require the board to prioritize complaints about possible unlicensed massage operations, check news stories and other source for potential illegal activity and train employees how to spot potential cases of human trafficking.

A state audit issued in March said the board was riddled with problems, and had dismissed 74% of complaints that alleged human trafficking at massage sites, sexually suggestive ads and other problems.

"The big thing following that legislative audit report is making sure we are addressing human trafficking," said state Rep. Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport and sponsor of HB531.

The report cited a national study that said there are more than 9,000 illicit massage businesses in the U.S. and that women engaging in prostitution may be the victims of human trafficking.

Aside from the state audit the bill was sparked by what state lawmakers viewed as a lackadaisical response to the report by massage board officials.

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The review quoted those officials as saying they leave trafficking allegations "to the professionals," meaning law enforcement.

The board also disputed seven of 11 suggestions spelled out in the audit.

Sen. Jay Luneau, R-Alexandria, vice-chairman of the Legislative Audit Advisory Council, warned board leaders earlier this year that the Legislature would step in if lawmakers concluded key problems were not being addressed.

Luneau told the Senate earlier this week that board officials were told "significant changes" needed to be made for the protection of consumers and massage therapists. "This is cleanup legislation that was sorely needed," he said.

Pressly said he was approached by the association of massage therapists asking that he sponsor a bill to ensure the board is doing its job.

The bill would require the board to review the performance of inspectors who check massage sites. Inspections would also be required to have a checklist that includes whether any massage operation appears to be sexually oriented.

The five-member Board of Massage Therapy includes a staff of three to oversee 2,784 massage therapists and 628 establishments.

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

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.