Massage therapist suspensions tied to human trafficking
JEROME R. STOCKFISCHTAMPA - The state on Wednesday suspended the licenses of 81 massage therapists with fraudulent Florida licenses in what officials from Gov. Rick Scott on down are billing as a fight against human trafficking.
Published: September 20, 2012
Published: September 20, 2012
No arrests have been made and no incidents of prostitution or human trafficking have been linked to the 81 therapists, who listed addresses nationwide.
But the officials said the state Department of Health, along with the Clearwater and South Florida human trafficking task forces, launched an investigation this year and found more than 200 therapists who appeared to have obtained their licenses by submitting fraudulent transcripts from a legitimate Florida massage school.
State Surgeon General John H. Armstrong declined to name the Florida school, citing an ongoing investigation, but he said it was not in the Tampa area. He said an individual registrar at the school, whom he declined to identify, sold transcripts for as much as $10,000 to $15,000 each.
The 81 therapists represent the first wave to face emergency suspension of their licenses. The suspension orders were stacked on a lectern at an afternoon news conference at the Hillsborough County Health Department.
The investigation into the licenses "showed that there is an irregularity," said Armstrong, who also serves as state secretary of health. "It was done as a system, and as a consequence, it justifies further investigation to look at just what these individuals were doing."
He said holding a license can lend an air of legitimacy to an operation "as a cover for illicit activity."
Clearwater Police Chief Anthony Holloway said that with a seemingly legitimate license, "you open up an avenue for trafficking."
As far as a connection between the 81 therapists and ongoing illegal activity or trafficking, "We don't know about that at this point," said Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri.
"This is a way to chip away at it. This is a first step in an overall process where we're trying to effectively deal with and eradicate human trafficking. So this is one step in that process."
Of the 81 therapists whose licenses were suspended, three were from the Tampa area: Li Peng, who listed an address of 20008 Outpost Point Drive in Tampa; Xia Peng, who originally listed a Tampa address but since has indicated she is not practicing in Florida; and Lin Hu, of 210 S. Kings Ave. in Brandon.
They could not be reached.
In Florida, massage therapists are required to file a detailed application with an official transcript mailed directly from a board-approved massage therapy school and proof of completion of a board-approved medical error prevention course and passage of one of four certification exams.
Gov. Scott joined Armstrong and local health and law enforcement officials at the news conference.
"If you want to break the law, if you want to prey on the vulnerable, if you are in any way in the business of human trafficking, you do not want to do it in Florida," Scott said. "Our justice system here is thorough and swift."
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