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Bill could help cities close illicit massage parlors

April 1, 2019 GMT

Municipalities could fine massage businesses that operate illegally, potentially shutting them down more quickly than through state action, under a bill introduced in the state Legislature last week.

The measure would let cities and other local jurisdictions enact ordinances to give fines of up to $1,000 to people working without state-issued massage therapist licenses. That would allow police and prosecutors to act while complaints are resolved by the state, which can take a year or longer, said the lead sponsor, Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-New Berlin.

“You’ll be able to expose these businesses a little bit earlier and hopefully get them to close,” Sanfelippo said.

He said he is responding to recent cases against illegal massage parlors in Franklin, Greenfield, New Berlin, Waukesha and West Allis. The bill, he said, could curb human trafficking at illicit massage establishments, which gained national attention in February when New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and other men where charged in a prostitution crackdown in Florida.

Jennifer Zilavy, an assistant city attorney for Madison, said illegal massage businesses, acting as fronts for prostitution, have “popped up all over the place” in the city in recent years.

Her office and the Madison Police Department told six of the operations to close, which they have done, but at least eight more are believed to be open, Zilavy said. She plans to draft an ordinance that would let the city regulate massage businesses that don’t have state licenses, which she said cities can already do.

Sanfelippo, who introduced the same bill last year, said state law doesn’t forbid municipalities from passing such ordinances but doesn’t explicitly allow it. He said he plans to add an amendment to let municipalities regulate the businesses, not just the workers.

Jeffrey Montoya, president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Massage Therapy Association, said the state’s approach to stopping unlicensed people from offering massages — by responding to complaints — is “a rather cumbersome process.” Sanfelippo’s bill “does seem to fill in a gap,” he said.

But Montoya said the association prefers another bill, introduced last session but not yet reintroduced this year, that would let the state license massage businesses along with massage therapists.

Montoya said some municipalities don’t understand contemporary massage therapy. Some want to pass ordinances that would duplicate the state licensing process for massage therapists, requiring local background checks and local fees, he said. Some want to ban children from legitimate massage businesses, he said, which he called “a flashback to the 1950s.”

Sanfelippo said his bill would help professional massage therapists maintain a good reputation.

“This bill is as much about protecting the good, legitimate operators in the industry as it is about trying to create ways to stop the bad actors,” he said.

In addition to letting municipalities issue a $1,000 fine for massage workers operating without a state license, the bill would allow a criminal fine of $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail under state law, not just a civil forfeiture of $1,000 as permitted today.

Betsy Krizenesky, the only current member of the state Massage Therapy and Bodywork Therapy Affiliated Credentialing Board, which is designed to have seven members, said she was not authorized to talk about the bill. Other board appointments await approval and the empty positions are expected to be filled soon, Krizenesky said.

Rep. Lisa Subeck, D-Madison, is one of two Democratic sponsors of the bill, which has numerous Republican sponsors in the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Joel DeSpain, spokesman for the Madison Police Department, said the agency “would welcome additional enforcement tools such as what is being proposed.” Illicit massage activity in Madison is “not a top priority for (Madison police), but something we do address when we receive complaints,” he said.

It’s not clear if the new bill, had it been passed years ago, would have helped Madison authorities more quickly shut down The Rising Sun, a Downtown bathhouse. It closed in 2017, nine years after an investigation started and seven years after a police raid.

Former co-owner Charles Prindiville pleaded guilty last year to conspiring to run a house of prostitution, a felony, and was fined $4,000.