Less than two weeks after The Arizona Republic published an in-depth investigation into sexual abuse in the massage industry, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced he has ousted all members of the Arizona State Board of Massage Therapy and replaced them with new members.
Ducey made the announcement on Friday, saying in a statement that "it’s critical the State Board of Massage Therapy protects massage clients, especially those who are in a vulnerable position. I’m confident today’s appointees will do that."
The five-member regulatory board is appointed by the governor and is responsible for licensing the state's 10,600 massage therapists and investigating complaints against them.
A representative from the Governor's Office called board members Friday morning, told them they were being replaced and thanked them for their service.
Ducey's announcements means longtime Board Chair Victoria Bowmann, a licensed massage therapist for 43 years, will no longer serve. Also departing are Mlee Clark, a massage therapist, and John Ortega and Nick McClain, who are both public members and not involved in the massage industry. Bowmann and Ortega were serving on expired terms, as is common with regulatory boards, while Clark and McClain still had time left on their five-year terms.
Sexual assault on the massage table: How Arizona allows massage therapists with sexual abuse allegations to keep working
Massage Envy still beset by complaints: Sexual abuse allegations continue to plague Arizona company Massage Envy
A fifth board seat has been vacant since June when board member Kevin Ramsey abruptly resigned after an Arizona Republic reporter questioned him about his ties to the Massage Envy franchise chain and why he was voting on Massage Envy therapists.
The board's monthly meeting, scheduled for Monday, was canceled after Ducey's announcement.
Bowmann declined comment Friday on Ducey's decision to replace the existing board.
The Republic earlier this month detailed in a five-month investigation how about 100 massage therapists have faced complaints before the state licensing board for allegedly exposing, fondling, sexually abusing or sexually assaulting their clients over the past eight years. Of those 100, about half didn't have their licenses revoked. Some were suspended or put on probation. Others had their complaints dismissed or got only warning letters. At least one therapist has been accused twice and still has a license.
Women who had filed complaints with the board said the reluctance to discipline therapists puts customers in danger.
The Republic's investigation also detailed how the massage industry in Arizona is loosely regulated, and how it's difficult for clients to vet therapists.
Three of the five licensing board members have historically been licensed massage therapists, an arrangement by law that tips the scale in the industry’s favor, critics say. State law changed in August 2020 to flip that composition, requiring three public members and two massage therapists. But the Governor’s Office has been slow to fill vacancies on a change that would give the public greater input into licensing decisions.
Emily Harris, who filed a complaint against a massage therapist in 2018, said the announcement that the board members were replaced was welcome news.
“My story is not unique, but I’m glad to see Governor Ducey taking steps to ensure the protection of clients now and in the future," Harris said on Friday.
Harris accused the therapist of sexual assault, but he denied the allegations. The board voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint and issue him only an advisory letter, a nondisciplinary action that said he “could have exercised better professional judgment and engaged in better communications with your client."
Christina Corieri, senior adviser to Ducey, said the Governor's Office made the board changes after reading The Republic's investigation and conducting research into allegations detailed in the story. In particular, she said the Governor's Office is concerned with the months-long delays in disciplinary hearings for massage therapists and what she called "dismissive" comments that some board members made to women who had filed complaints.
"Those were extremely concerning to us," she said.
Ducey said Friday that three of his new appointees to the board have experience in victim advocacy and support.
"The state is committed to implementing policies and best practices that will help keep Arizonans who are massage clients safe, and will continue to work with industry professionals and members of the spa community moving forward," he said.
The five new appointees include:
- Myriah Mhoon, a public member, is the CEO of New Life Center, a large domestic violence shelter. She has worked as a social worker and helped staff the Arizona Guidelines for Developing a Regional Response to Youth Sex Trafficking project through the Arizona Human Trafficking Council.
- Bailey DeRoest, a public member, is the co-director of Sojourner Center, a program for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking in Arizona. DeRoest has more than 17 years of experience in serving victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking, first as a crisis shelter manager and then as chief operating officer.
- Lisa Lucchesi, a public member, is a national human trafficking specialist at Aetna, where she develops and manages programs.
- Michael Tapscott, a licensed massage therapist, is senior instructor of massage therapy at Gateway Community College. He has more than 25 years of experience as a massage therapist.
- Angela Reiter, a licensed massage therapist, is the owner of Integrative Therapeutic Massage and Bodywork. Reiter is a graduate of the Chicago School of Massage Therapy and has practiced as a licensed and board-certified massage therapist since 1994.
Support local journalism. Subscribe to azcentral.com today.