Parlor politics: Behind the little-known massage certification group that Sacramento County rejected

California Massage Therapy Council strengthens industry grip under state legislation

Under a state law that went into effect last year, a tax-exempt private entity with a financial stake in the massage industry has been spreading its influence to numerous local jurisdictions. But the California Massage Therapy Council has yet to rub Sacramento County the right way.

The CMTC is a little-known group that makes millions of dollars annually by certifying massage professionals around the state.

Created in 2009 by state legislation, the CMTC established what it calls a “voluntary” certification process. While not required, a CMTC certification is recognized anywhere in the state, as opposed to local certification, which might only be good in the town where it’s obtained.

The CMTC is not a “quasi-governmental” regulatory body, Executive Director Ahmos Netanel is careful to point out. But it’s easy to mistake it for one, as state lawmakers created the group and expanded its role.

In January 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Massage Therapy Act, which, among other things, boosted the CMTC’s profile by incentivizing local governments to require its certification.

CMTC’s bottom line hangs in the balance.

The group’s revenues, which come almost entirely from certification fees, dropped in 2015 for the first time in at least four years, according to CMTC financial statements and IRS data. Last year, CMTC recorded $4.4 million in revenue, almost 7 percent less than the previous year. The group is projecting another decline this year, with less than $4 million expected.

Because the Massage Therapy Act doubled the amount of training required to become a certified massage practitioner to 500 hours (an amount already required for certified massage therapists), fewer new applications are coming in. But CMTC may eventually make that money back as more local governments require its certification, making its “voluntary” process less voluntary.

“It hasn’t reached that critical mass yet,” said Sacramento County tax and finance manager Guy Fuson, who helped craft new massage business regulations intended to weed out fronts for prostitution.

Still, Netanel says his group neither encourages nor discourages local governments to require CMTC certification, even with its financial fortunes at stake.

“We are totally neutral about it,” said Netanel, who became executive director in 2010 and has seen his annual salary increase 14 percent between 2012 and 2014, to $302,325. “It is something that happens organically.”

In February, a written report to the CMTC board estimated that at least 151 counties and cities had begun requiring its certification before massage professionals could do business in their jurisdictions. Another 22 jurisdictions were in the process of drafting similar proposals.

Sacramento County is not one of those jurisdictions. And Fuson, a CMTC board member, isn’t advocating to change that.

“Two-thirds of the people we arrest happen to have their certification,” he said. “It is sort of an industry-based group.”

Netanel contends that CMTC’s certification process was robust even before lawmakers increased training requirements, and is fond of saying that a CMTC certificate “is the hardest to get and the easiest to lose.”

“Even if they were not convicted of prostitution, we will revoke their certificate,” he said.

Applicants need to clear Department of Justice and FBI criminal background checks, and Netanel says the CMTC decertifies people even if there’s just a credible suspicion of prostitution. The most common evidentiary reason comes in the form of sworn declarations from law enforcement officers, which, Netanel said, are “something we use extensively.”

Between its inception in August 2009 and April 30, CMTC has issued 6,794 disciplinary actions, Netanel said.

Kristen DiAngelo, an activist and former escort who founded the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, said overvigilance can put consenting sex workers and trafficking victims alike in more desperate conditions.

“Traffickers don’t go, ’Oh damn, my girls can no longer work there. Guess I’ll stop,’” she said. Instead, the victims are moved to another location, increasing their danger. “Every time a victim is relocated, their chances of survival diminishes.”

Netanel said the CMTC permanently revoked a certificate due to a human trafficking violation for the first time last year. He didn’t recall the details of the case or in which county it occurred.

“That’s out of more than 70,000 individual professionals,” he said. “Even if it is rare, we take it very, very seriously and it is a priority for us.”

In 2013, less than a percent of its $2.4 million in reported expenses was spent on application investigations. Almost 48 percent went toward compensation and benefits, while nearly 6 percent was spent on hotel and travel accommodations.

According to Fuson, diploma mill massage schools, which essentially sell certificates without administering the required training, cause the primary problem for local regulators, who have to honor the certificates as valid.

“As we know, a diploma is only as good as your laser printer,” he said. “A lot of the schools are not legitimate.”

The Massage Therapy Act put CMTC in charge of approving these schools, but a regulatory patchwork remains.

“What we need that we still do not have is a good gatekeeper,” Fuson said.