Let’s hope the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association never starts a payday loan service.
A few weeks back, the Daily Beast reported that a racketeering lawsuit was recently filed against the power-hungry, ethically challenged, Jeff Sessions loving Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association. Apparently, the sheriffs have been using a shady debt collection agency to bully and extort hundreds of thousands of dollars each year from broke Oklahomans.
Ira Wilkins should be a free man. Wilkins has served his time in an Oklahoma prison and is clear for release. But a private court fee collections agency is keeping him behind bars.
Wilkins is the lead plaintiff in a new racketeering lawsuit against the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, every sheriff’s department in the state, and the court fee collections firm Aberdeen Enterprizes II. When Oklahomans owe court fees, their case is assigned to Aberdeen, which charges them an additional 30 percent on top of what courts want. If they don’t pay, Aberdeen requests a warrant for the debtor’s arrest. It’s big business for Aberdeen and the Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association, which received more than $800,000 from Aberdeen in 2015.
But while Aberdeen and the OSA strike it rich, poor Oklahomans are languishing in modern day debtors prison, the lawsuit alleges…
Wow, and you thought our sheriffs’ abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws was shady! Really? We issue arrest warrants for people who don’t pay court fees? That’s extreme. Sheriffs should have to wait in line to collect debts just like hospitals, credit card companies, payday loan lenders, David Stanley Dodge, the federal government and everyone else.
The lawsuit cites the case of an unnamed homeless man who was arrested on retail larceny and trespassing charges on New Year’s Eve 2016. The man, who is on disability payments, claims he didn’t have the $150 he needed to bond out of jail. When he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, he was slapped with $425 in fines and fees, plus $385 in “hidden costs.” The sum came out to over $800—more than the man’s monthly disability earnings. Then the man’s money troubles got worse. His case was handed to Aberdeen, which increases all debts by 30 percent.
Remember the good old days when creditors and collection agencies could only harass you endlessly and further wreck your credit? I didn’t know they could also send you to jail! Also, how does one get involved in the collection business? It seems profitable.
The Oklahoman got approval from the Republican establishment to cover the lawsuit in yesterday’s paper. They put their most loyal company man on the job – Nolan “The Mad Dog” Clay.
A private organization once mired in scandal has become rich, thanks to a 2010 law giving it an administrative role in the collection of overdue fines, court costs and fees in criminal cases.
The Oklahoma Sheriffs’ Association has made more than $4 million off its role in the program even though it has never collected a dollar itself, an investigation by The Oklahoman found.
The more collected, the more it gets, records show. Last year alone, it made $761,480 from the program.
Question – have Oklahoma elected officials done anything right this millennium? Why would anyone in this state want to give sheriffs more power? Not to go all Berry Tramel on you, but they’re more Roscoe P. Coltrain than Andy Taylor. Just search “sheriff” on this site. You’ll see.
Naturally, it looks like cash-strapped Oklahoma lawmakers are now eyeing the extortion money:
Critics of the program have long questioned why a private sheriffs’ association — rather than a state entity — was rewarded such an easy way to make money. Those questions have popped up again this year as state officials struggle with a budget crisis.
“It’s as wrong as wrong can be,” said state Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville. “There’s no reason for them to do this. … That’s garbage, man. You can’t do that.”
Wow, those words are generally used to describe our Oklahoma legislature. It’s weird to see a lawmaker use them to describe another state entity! Is that even legal?
Anyway, you can read more about this in the Daily Beast and The Oklahoman. I have a feeling the lawmakers are going fight the sheriffs for a share of the loot in the next session. I don’t know who will win, but either way, it will probably be bad for the Oklahoma people, especially the poor ones. That’s how things work around here.
Will someone please tell me where in the U.S., or the Oklahoma State constitutions, it states: that one can be remanded to a state or federal penal institution, because the state has decided to impose ridiculous costs and fees, even after you’ve completed your sentence, handed down to you, by the state? Slaves Much? – AdamSpeaks
“But of course congress will pass a law to cover their own future ASSES!”
After six days of getting treated by the media as a villain of sexual harassment, Joe Barton’s colleagues in Congress have begun an effort that should recast the Texas Republican as the victim of a crime. Democrats and Republicans in both chambers introduced legislation today that would extend criminal sanctions for “revenge porn,” the sharing of intimate photos without consent with the intent to damage reputations:
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday introduced legislation that would criminalize “revenge porn” after one of their own, Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), had a nude image of himself shared without consent last week.
The legislation offered by Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) would make the non-consensual circulation of private, graphic imagery a federal criminal offense. The sharing of “revenge porn,” already barred by law in more than 30 states and Washington D.C., made headlines last week when Barton apologized following the online circulation of a nude selfie. …
In order for the dissemination of the picture to qualify as a federal crime under the legislation introduced Tuesday, the individual involved in circulating the photo would have to be “aware of a substantial risk that the victim expected the image would remain private and that the sharing could cause harm to the victim.”
Richard Burr (R-SC) has also sponsored the Senate bill, while the House bill has Republicans such as Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney signing on for support. It’s too soon for the bills to show up on GovTrack, but the legislative text should be available shortly. Burr wants to advance this effort quickly to fill a gap in enforcement, one that Barton himself experienced:
“It’s time to update the law and ensure that individuals who maliciously exploit the private information and images of their victims are held accountable under criminal statute,” Burr said in a statement. “New technologies can make our lives better, but they also open a new platform for abuse and exploitation.”
Be sure to read Allahpundit’s review of Barton’s situation if you somehow missed this scandal in the Pervnado storm system. The short story: Barton, while separated from his wife and in the process of divorce, began seeing other women and sent one or more of them nude photos of himself. That’s pretty dumb, but it’s no more foolish than it is for other celebrities to take nude selfies and share them with dating partners with varying degrees of integrity. When Barton found out that the woman had shared the images, he warned her not to do so because of the risk it created for his career. The woman did so anyway, and Barton’s naked genitalia went public along with his warning that he didn’t consent to the release.
In any other situation, this would be a classic revenge-porn case. Thanks to the present (and largely self-inflicted) environment on Capitol Hill regarding sexual harassment, the Washington Post framed the story in that vein with Barton as its villain rather than its victim. E! News managed to get a story involving another Barton (no relation) much more accurately:
Mischa Barton’s ex-boyfriend has agreed to a five-year restraining order according to court documents obtained by E! News.
The documents require that both The O.C. star and Adam Spaw “shall stay 100 or more yards away from each other, their residences, pets, vehicles, and places of employment, and shall have no contact directly or indirectly with each other” through telephone, social media, texts and e-mails.
In addition, Adam has agreed “not to directly or indirectly, or through any agent, sell, distribute, show, give away or assign in any way any intimate photos or videos of Mischa Barton. He further agrees that he has not to date done so nor attempted to do any of the foregoing.”
In both Barton cases, the person depicted shared the images privately to another consenting and trusted adult without any consent for wider release. Both Bartons were victims, but the Post decided to flip the script on the Texas Republican in the House. (Spaw denies having any such images.)
The proposal to close the loop at the federal level makes sense given the interstate and international nature of the Internet, at least in theory. Wait for the actual text to see whether Congress has tailored this narrowly and appropriately, or bungled it with overbroad language that would infringe on legitimate speech. With figures like Gowdy on board, one can hope that the former will be the case, but we need to verify it’s not the latter.
In the meantime, the best advice to give anyone — but especially politicians — is to send candid pictures from around the bonfire rather than on the rug in front of the fireplace. Laws should be narrowly tailored, and so should elected officials. One would have thought the Anthony Weiner saga would have taught Capitol Hill this lesson, but here we are …
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A newly revealed incident reported by a USAID officer who is based at the American embassy in Uzbekistan is raising suspicions Russia may have been involved and could have had a hand in bizarre attacks targeting U.S. diplomats in Cuba, according to American sources.
In September, the officer and his wife reported, according to one source familiar with the incident, what may have been at least one acoustic attack similar to those experienced by the diplomats in Havana.
Investigation into mysterious Cuba attacks “back to square one“
The first Cuba attacks began in November 2016, and the last report of an attack was in August 2017. Victims of the attacks in Cuba describe hearing a loud, high-pitched sound often described like a hiss of cicadas or crickets in unusual places—often in their homes.
The State Department declined to describe in detail the incident in Tashkent.
“We aren’t going to discuss every case individually,” a spokesperson said.
Victims of the attacks in Cuba were diagnosed with hearing loss, brain injuries, cognitive issues and other conditions.
The source says the two suffered similar effects and were flown out of Tashkent by the State Department to be evaluated. It is unclear what further diagnosis or care they have had following their departure from Uzbekistan.
”We take seriously the health concerns of USG personnel anywhere in the world,” the State Department spokesperson told CBS News. “We ensure our personnel are examined and receive appropriate treatment.”
On Tuesday afternoon, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “We can confirm that there was no incident in Uzbekistan.”
USAID, a U.S. government agency that provides foreign assistance in more than 100 countries, maintains its Uzbekistan headquarters office at the American embassy in Tashkent. Its work focuses mainly on agriculture and trade. It referred CBS News inquiries on the incident to the State Department. Although USAID is an independent agency, it works closely with the State Department.
USAID’s Country Director in Tashkent Gary Robbins, referred CBS News to an embassy spokesman who offered no more details. Messages to USAID’s Deputy Country Director were not returned.
The Central Asian country was once part of the USSR. It declared independence in 1991 during the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, it maintains strong ties with Russia. The two countries held joint military drills in October, their first together in 12 years. Uzbekistan is also considering re-joining the Russian-led military bloc Collective Security Treaty Organization, from which it withdrew in 2012 under long-time President Islom Karimov who died in 2016.
Russia has sought to capitalize on relations with Karimov’s successor, President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, at the expense of the U.S.
Now, two U.S. security sources say the September incident in Tashkent raises concerns Russia may be involved, and could have had a hand in the attacks targeting U.S. government personnel in Cuba-another country where Russia has also exerted growing influence.
“The Russians have been rebuilding their relationship—it deteriorated dramatically after the end of the Cold War,” according to William Leogrande, a foreign policy professor at American University who focuses on Cuba. Now, “They have a strong presence in Cuba and an historic relationship with Cuban intelligence that might give them the kind of freedom to operate that would provide an opportunity.”
Russia has denied any role in the attacks.
Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova called suggestions about Russia’s involvement “absurd” at a press briefing in Moscow August 31, and said “this does not help the normalization of the bilateral relations” between the U.S. and Russia.
“We are ready to help the Cuban side investigate the matter and determine the facts,” she said.
The State Department refused to publicly comment on whether it would welcome Russia’s involvement in the investigation into the Cuba attacks.
Republican Victory May Rest Once Again With McCain, This Time on Taxes
Once again, it could all come down to Senator John McCain.
After sinking his party’s hopes of repealing the Affordable Care Act this year with a dramatic thumbs-down, the fate of a tax overhaul may now sit in the hands of the Republican from Arizona. In recent days, Mr. McCain has been fairly tight-lipped about his views on the tax proposal speeding through the Senate, saying he sees some problems with the existing bill but is waiting for a final plan before making a decision.
Asked about what concerned him about the Senate tax bill this week, Mr. McCain replied tersely: “A lot of things.”
Even those who know Mr. McCain best are unsure how he will vote, but if history is any guide, Republicans have reason to worry.
Mr. McCain has voted against big tax cuts before, including two that passed under another Republican president: George W. Bush. In that case, he bucked the majority of his party on the grounds that the 2001 and 2003 cuts overwhelmingly benefited the rich — a widespread criticism of the current Senate legislation and the bill that has already passed the House. Mr. McCain is also a deficit hawk and could find it hard to swallow a tax cut that will add around $1.5 trillion to the federal debt over 10 years.
With their slim majority in the Senate, Republicans can lose no more than two votes, and several others are on the fence.
“I don’t know,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, policy adviser to Mr. McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, said when asked how his former boss would vote on the tax overhaul. “For most people there are going to be things in there they don’t like and the question is what is preferable, the status quo or the bill.”
In 2001, as Republicans forged ahead with a $1.35 trillion tax cut, Mr. McCain became one of two Republican senators to vote against the bill’s passage. He said he could not accept that changes to the bill lowered the top individual tax rate to 35 percent and delayed tax relief for married couples.
“We had an opportunity to provide much more tax relief to millions of hard-working Americans,” Mr. McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor. “But I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief.”
Two years later, Mr. McCain voted against another round of tax cuts. In his remarks in 2003, Mr. McCain again cast doubt on the need to use “billions of federal dollars to cut taxes for our nation’s wealthiest.” The deal breaker that time was that his fellow lawmakers would pass such cuts while rejecting legislation that would have allowed members of the military to get tax breaks on profits from selling their homes.
“Politics ruled the day,” he said ruefully.
But Mr. McCain had been a tax cut skeptic well before those votes. After Republicans swept control of Congress in 1994, he was fretting about being fiscally responsible and urged his fellow lawmakers to heed the lessons of President Ronald Reagan.
“I think we would be making a terrible mistake to go back to the ’80s, where we cut all of those taxes and all of a sudden now we’ve got a debt that we’ve got to pay on an annual basis that is bigger than the amount that we spend on defense,” Mr. McCain said.
During his first run for president, Mr. McCain was the candidate of fiscal responsibility rather than tax relief. When debating George W. Bush during the 2000 Republican primary, it was clear that Mr. McCain did not think that the budget surplus should be spent on tax cuts.
The tax plan that Mr. McCain crafted in 2008 during his presidential run against Barack Obama was even more mainstream Republican. He called for lowering the corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent, phasing out the alternative minimum tax and doubling the value of exemptions for each dependent to $7,000 from $3,500.
The current Senate version has some similar strands, though it goes much further in giving tax breaks to businesses. The Senate bill cuts the top corporate tax rate to 20 percent, phases out the alternative minimum tax for both individuals and businesses, and creates more favorable tax treatment for so-called pass-through businesses. On the individual side, it roughly doubles the standard deduction for married couples filing jointly to $24,000 from $12,700 and increases the value of some other tax breaks, such as the child tax credit.
These days Mr. McCain seems far more concerned with the virtues of bipartisanship and “regular order,” insisting that both parties should have the chance to debate tax legislation and offer changes to any bill. His biggest priority remains robust military spending, and some have speculated that Mr. McCain could be wary that tax cuts would mean less revenue for the military and more debt for the nation.
Steve Schmidt, a Republican strategist and longtime adviser to Mr. McCain, said that if lawmakers mean what they have said over the years about fiscal restraint, they should oppose this tax bill.
“We’re about to find out the degree to which that viewpoint about fiscal discipline was political rhetoric or fundamental principle,” Mr. Schmidt said. “If it was political rhetoric, then this bill will pass. If those statements were principle based, then this bill will fail.”
There have been some signals that Mr. McCain could be on board despite his public reluctance to embrace the bill. A spokeswoman for Mr. McCain pointed to his recent comments praising the process.
Still, some supporters of the tax bill have been concerned that Mr. McCain, along with Senators Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, could vote against the legislation, possibly to spite President Trump, whom they have all been critical of, and criticized by.
Grover Norquist, the head of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform, said that he is hopeful that Mr. McCain will put his differences with Mr. Trump aside and get behind a tax bill that he thinks would be good for the party and the economy.
“You want to be the guy who is bigger than any personal fight,” said Mr. Norquist, who suggested that Mr. McCain voted against the 2001 tax cuts because he disliked Mr. Bush.
As for Mr. McCain’s penchant for going his own way, Mr. Norquist said he thought the senator had already proved himself.
“I think McCain did the maverick thing on health care, so if there are dues for the maverick club, he paid them this year big time,” he said.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is calling for a law that would give police a backdoor into mobile devices. http://www.adam-speaks.com
Amid an intensifying “arms race” between law enforcement and smartphone manufacturers, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance is calling for legislation that would grant police a backdoor into mobile devices.
In a report issued last week, Mr. Vance said new laws are needed to force tech companies such as Apple and Google to modify their software so law enforcement can unlock smartphones seized during criminal investigations.
“Traditional investigative techniques—searches of targets’ homes, physical surveillance, wiretaps on telephones—often fall short when it comes to gathering enough evidence to solve and prosecute today’s criminal activity,” the report states. “Unfortunately, much of today’s evidence exists in a space that, prior to 2014, was largely unheard-of: Warrant-proof smartphones that have been designed to keep law enforcement out.”
Civil liberties and internet-advocacy groups have condemned efforts to weaken smartphone encryption, arguing that they threaten personal privacy, as well as U.S. national security and global competitiveness.
The only recent federal legislative effort to give police a way into smartphones—a bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.) in the wake of the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., that left 14 dead—foundered in 2016 amid widespread criticism from the tech community.
While Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, criticized Apple after the San Bernardino shooting, his Republican White House has yet to take any new steps to try to weaken smartphone encryption.
Meanwhile, the number of mobile devices seized in criminal investigations continues to grow. Mr. Vance’s report states that in Manhattan the district attorney’s office recovered 1,200 devices in the first 10 months of 2017, of which 700 were locked.
Law enforcement successfully unlocked about 40% of those 700 phones, a spokesman for Mr. Vance’s office said.
“While workarounds such as ‘lawful hacking’ have been used by law enforcement with some success over the past year, they…become obsolete when new devices and operating systems are released, creating an endless cat-and-mouse system that strains resources and undermines public safety,” the report said.
Mr. Vance has lobbied for legislation in the past, including testifying before a U.S. Senate committee in 2015. Last week’s report is the third white paper released by his office since Apple’s 2014 decision to make locked devices inaccessible without a passcode, a move quickly matched by Google.
The result has been an escalating battle between law enforcement seeking to crack mobile devices and tech companies working to keep them secure, the report states.
Investigators increasingly rely on workarounds from third-party “lawful hacking” contractors, which the Manhattan prosecutors office said have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Such spending is available only to particularly well-funded agencies, the report states. “Crime victims thus have unequal access to justice, depending on the resources of the city or county in which they live,” the report said.
Mr. Vance’s report cites several cases in which smartphone access was a key part of successful prosecutions, uncovering videos corroborating child abuse; photos and text messages linking murder suspects and victims; and messages establishing intent in a sexual-assault case.
Google and Apple declined to comment. Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook previously has denounced efforts to create a backdoor, calling it government overreach that threatens consumer privacy and security.
“There’s no such thing as a backdoor that is just for law enforcement,” said Donna Lieberman, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Creating a way into cellphones means less well-intentioned people would be able to steal data and violate privacy, she said.
The NYCLU is lobbying for a state law, the New York State Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which would make it more difficult for police to access mobile devices. The bill has passed the committee level and supporters hope to see it enacted in the next legislative session.
On Wednesday, the supreme court will consider whether the government must obtain a warrant before accessing the rich trove of data that cellphone providers collect about cellphone users’ movements. Among scholars and campaigners, there is broad agreement that the case could yield the most consequential privacy ruling in a generation.
Less appreciated is the significance of the case for rights protected by the first amendment. The parties’ briefs make little mention of the first amendment, instead framing the dispute – for understandable reasons – as one about the right to privacy. Yet the court’s resolution of the case is likely to have far-reaching implications for the freedoms of speech, press and association.
The case, Carpenter v United States, arises out of the government’s prosecution of Timothy Carpenter for a series of armed robberies carried out in south-eastern Michigan and north-western Ohio several years ago. In the course of its investigation of the crimes, the government ordered Carpenter’s cellphone provider to turn over data it had collected relating to Carpenter’s movements. In response, the provider produced 186 pages listing every call that Carpenter had made over a 127-day period, as well as coordinates indicating where Carpenter had been at the beginning and end of each of those calls.
Importantly, it turned over these records even though the government had not obtained a warrant based on probable cause. Carpenter asked the court to suppress the government’s evidence under the fourth amendment, which protects the right to privacy.
Many cellphone users have only a vague understanding of the extent to which providers monitor their movements, but these companies now track us much more closely than even the most committed human spies ever could. Cellphones function by connecting to antennas – “cell sites” or “cell towers” – that provide cellular service. Those cell sites, which are owned and operated by the cellular companies, are programmed to record which phones connect to them, and when. They also record the direction from which the connecting phone’s signal is received and, often, the distance of the phone from the cell site.
So-called “cell site location information” is becoming ever more precise, because the cellular network is becoming ever more dense. The analytical tools that can be brought to bear on this information are also becoming more sophisticated, meaning that investigators can draw reliable conclusions from smaller and smaller amounts of data. It’s precisely because the information is so rich, of course, that the government is interested in accessing it.
Privacy scholars are watching Carpenter’s case closely because it may require the supreme court to address the scope and continuing relevance of the “third-party-records doctrine”, a judicially developed rule that has sometimes been understood to mean that a person surrenders her constitutional privacy interest in information that she turns over to a third party. The government contends that Carpenter lacks a constitutionally protected privacy interest in his location data because his cellphone was continually sharing that data with his cellphone provider.
Privacy advocates are rightly alarmed by this argument. Much of the digital technology all of us rely on today requires us to share information passively with third parties. Visiting a website, sending an email, buying a book online – all of these things require sharing sensitive data with internet service providers, merchants, banks and others. If this kind of commonplace and unavoidable information-sharing is sufficient to extinguish constitutional privacy rights, the digital-age fourth amendment will soon be a dead letter.
To understand the Carpenter case’s full significance, though, it’s necessary to consider the implications the government’s arguments have for first amendment rights. In a brief filed in support of Carpenter, 19 leading technologists explain how easy it is to use a person’s location data to learn about her beliefs and associations. (We represent the technologists.) With very few data points, the technologists observe, an analyst can learn whether a given person attended a public demonstration, attended a political meeting, or met with a particular activist or lawyer. With more data, an analyst can identify social networks and learn not only whether a given person was at a public demonstration but who else attended the demonstration with her.
Journalists and their sources might be at particular risk. Imagine parallel demands for the cell site location information of a journalist who exposed government misconduct and of all the government employees who had access to the information the journalist exposed. As the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press observes in its own brief filed in the Carpenter case, cell site location information “can reveal the stories a journalist is working on before they are published, where a journalist went to gather information for those stories, and the identity of a journalist’s sources”.
This is why it is a mistake to think about the Carpenter case solely through the lens of individual privacy. A defeat for Carpenter would be a defeat for privacy rights, but it would also mean a dramatic curtailment of first amendment freedoms.
The Carpenter case is the latest in a series of cases that have required the supreme court to consider the relevance of analog-era precedents to digital-age technologies. Although these cases were presented to the court as fourth amendment cases, the court was attentive to the implications of government surveillance for first amendment freedoms. When the court held that the fourth amendment precluded the government from installing a GPS device on a criminal suspect’s car without first obtaining a warrant, five justices cited some of the same concerns raised by the technologists we represent in Carpenter.
Do “people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded and aggregated in a manner that enables the government to ascertain, more or less at will, their political and religious beliefs [and] sexual habits?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked in her powerful concurrence.
Two years later, when the court ruled that the government could not search a criminal suspect’s cellphone without first obtaining a warrant, the court cited similar concerns.
“Awareness that the government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. Left unchecked, he warned, new forms of surveillance could “alter the relationship between citizen and government in a way that is inimical to democratic society”.
The court was right in these cases to take account of the implications of surveillance technology for rights protected by the first amendment. It should be similarly attentive to these implications in Carpenter. Without strong protections for individual privacy, the freedoms of speech, association and the press will wither.
In assessing whether Carpenter had a right to privacy in his location information, the court should consider what will remain of these indispensable democratic freedoms if the government is afforded access, without close judicial supervision, to the information that cellphone providers are continuously collecting about all of us, and to the other sensitive and even intimate records that all of us passively and routinely share with third parties.
Across the US, people go to Massage Envy spas in search of a soothing, affordable escape. More than 180 people say what they got instead was sexual assault. But the billion-dollar company says that’s not its problem to solve. A BuzzFeed News investigation.
On May 2, 2015, Susan Ingram lay facedown in the dark at her local Massage Envy in West Chester, Pennsylvania, one of the franchise’s nearly 1,200 spas nationwide. It was her seventh session with James Deiter, a massage therapist whom the spa had enthusiastically recommended. By now, Ingram trusted Deiter, and she closed her eyes and relaxed as he worked her muscles. Then, without warning, Deiter ground his erect penis against Ingram’s body. He groped her breasts. He put his fingers in and out of her vagina.
Ingram lay there, frozen in fear and disbelief, until the session was over. After driving home sobbing, she called the spa to report the sexual assault. She was shocked when the manager refused to interrupt the session Deiter was having with a female client, Ingram said, or to connect Ingram with the spa’s owner.
“I said to her, ‘Nicole, he stuck his fingers in my vagina less than an hour ago,’” she later recounted in court. She begged the manager to get Deiter’s client out of the massage room immediately. “She said she could not do that, and she invited me in to talk about my services,” Ingram added.
Frustrated, Ingram called the police, who interviewed Deiter that afternoon. He quickly admitted to assaulting not just Ingram but other Massage Envy clients as well. “I need help,” he confessed. The next year, Deiter pleaded guilty to sexually molesting a total of nine women while working at Massage Envy from fall 2014 to spring 2015.
“I said to her, ‘Nicole, he stuck his fingers in my vagina less than an hour ago.’”
Two of those women had tried to warn the spa about Deiter before Ingram had, court records show. Three months before Ingram’s assault, one woman told the spa that Deiter had touched her genitals. One month before Ingram’s assault, another woman reported he had touched her breasts. The spa decided their allegations weren’t credible, in part because, like Ingram, both women had made them over the phone and wouldn’t return to the spa to discuss the events in person. Lawyers would later ask the spa owner and another clinic manager why they would judge an alleged sexual assault victim on her willingness to return to the scene of the crime.
“I was following the policy of Massage Envy,” the owner said, “and therefore I thought it was appropriate.”
Massage Envy, the first and by far the largest chain of massage franchises in the country, is a billion-dollar business that promises trustworthy services at an affordable price. But BuzzFeed News found that more than 180 people have filed sexual assault lawsuits, police reports, and state board complaints against Massage Envy spas, their employees, and the national company. Like Susan Ingram, many say their claims were mishandled or ignored by employees and owners of individual Massage Envy spas, and by the national company itself.
Dozens of women reported digital and oral penetration. One Oregon woman said her massage therapist forced his entire fist into her vagina before ejaculating in her face. In Florida, a woman said she tried to push away her massage therapist as he licked her vagina. Over 100 reported that massage therapists groped their genitals, groped their breasts, or committed other explicit violations, such as the California woman who said she opened her eyes during a prenatal massage to find her massage therapist sucking on her nipple.
“I was following the policy of Massage Envy, and therefore I thought it was appropriate.”
These claims represent only a sliver of the tens of millions of services Massage Envy says its franchises have provided. Still, lawyers for aggrieved spa clients told BuzzFeed News that there are more cases where women report abuse by massage therapists to police but no arrest is made, and that Massage Envy spas sometimes offer a settlement before a suit is filed, leaving no public record. Statistically, most victims of sexual assault don’t report at all. Even Massage Envy’s own orientation manual, discussing client satisfaction in general, has warned new employees that “Only 4% of upset customers will tell you when there is a problem.”
Massage Envy told BuzzFeed News that it would not be “appropriate to respond point-by-point” to questions “because of pending litigation” and the confidential documents involved. But overall, Melanie Hansen, general counsel of Massage Envy Franchising, said the company has worked hard to create the industry’s “most stringent, rigorous policies” for hiring, screening, and training therapists. “We hold franchise owners accountable to our policies and, when we say nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect and giving them a safe, professional experience, we mean it,” she said in an email to BuzzFeed News.
But a review by BuzzFeed News found the company’s policies on reporting improper conduct do more to protect the company brand than to ensure customer complaints are handled appropriately. Customers have been violated in shocking ways, then seen their reports brushed aside, while offending therapists have been allowed to keep their professional standing with no consequences.
“Nothing is more important to us than treating clients with respect.”
In most states, massage facilities have no legal obligation to report sexual assault claims made on their premises. Still, leaders in the field say massage providers should recognize their inherent duty to address the issue as fully and as expeditiously as possible. The American Massage Therapy Association says it “strongly believes that any massage therapist who steps over the line to inappropriate touch should face the legal consequences.” The association stressed that victims should determine how to proceed but encouraged “anyone who feels there may be inappropriate behavior to call the local police immediately.”
Ben Benjamin, coauthor of the influential book The Ethics of Touch, puts it more bluntly: “If a person says, ‘Someone put their finger in my vagina,’ of course you call the police.”
Even if employees aren’t sure whether a client has been the victim of a crime, they should encourage the person to file formal charges with law enforcement or state regulatory boards, massage experts said. Victims’ rights advocates said facilities should prominently display their reporting policies and hire specially trained, independent consultants if criminal allegations arise.
Massage Envy Franchising doesn’t require its spas to take any of those steps. Except in the few places where local laws might demand it, the company does not compel its franchisees to notify law enforcement or to hire qualified investigators to help determine what happened. This holds true regardless of the seriousness of the allegation, even if it involves rape.
What the company tells franchisees they must do is conduct their own “prompt, fair, and thorough” investigation of any such claims. But it provides almost no guidance on how to do so.
Although experiences can vary widely from spa to spa, some former franchise owners and employees from California to Maryland said they didn’t feel capable of handling such cases themselves.
“Honestly, they don’t really prepare you for that serious of a scenario,” said Kendra Simone, who oversaw more than a dozen Massage Envy spas as an operations director from 2010 to 2016. Employees learned how to ensure incidents didn’t “escalate” into negative publicity, she said, but not how to investigate potential criminal behavior.
The company’s policy “is not in place to protect the client,” one former employee said. “It’s in place to protect the company.”
The internal review policy “is not in place to protect the client,” said Kate Hardy, who worked on and off as a front desk associate and then clinic manager in Montana from 2014 until June 2017. “It’s in place to protect the company. It’s centered around defusing the situation so the client doesn’t call the police. You don’t want cop cars showing up at your location the next day.”
Simone said her spas never faced any sexual assault allegations. “If it did happen, do I have complete faith that the managers working at those locations would handle it appropriately, and that they have the proper tools to do that?” she asked. “Probably not.”
In court filings and in public statements, Massage Envy corporate says it isn’t liable for sexual assaults that take place at the spas because of the nature of the franchise arrangement. Spas control their own day-to-day operations, Hansen said, including figuring out how best to investigate inappropriate conduct.
Attorneys for former Massage Envy clients have made a different argument. They say that though the spas are independently owned, it’s the parent company that trains employees in Massage Envy policies, sets operational standards such as the need to investigate internally, and monitors the progress of those investigations — and that as a result, the parent company should be held accountable for those policies’ failures.
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It appears that Massage Envy Franchising has never had to answer in open court to a victim of sexual assault at one of its spas. Ingram’s civil lawsuit may change that. Her trial is scheduled to start in January.
Meanwhile, clients continue to be sexually assaulted at Massage Envy spas. Some have kept massage therapists on staff even after multiple misconduct complaints. Others have quietly fired therapists without reporting their offenses to police or state regulatory boards, allowing the therapists to move on to new professional opportunities with a clean record.
Ingram still wonders whether Deiter would be working as a massage therapist today if she hadn’t decided to call the police herself.
“Massage Envy is a partner in crime,” Ingram said. “They had every opportunity, on multiple occasions, to remove him from his position, and they chose not to.”
In 2002, a massage therapist and the co-owner of a chain of health clubs wondered whether they could apply a recurring monthly membership model to the massage industry, offering an accessible alternative to luxury day spas or seedy parlors. Over the next decade, the multitrillion-dollar global spa and wellness industry exploded — Americans now spend more than $12 billion on massage therapy alone — and Massage Envy grew into the largest massage franchise in the world.
Roark Capital, a private equity firm that owns dozens of big-name franchises like Carl’s Jr. and Arby’s, bought Massage Envy in 2012. The Arizona-based franchise network now collectively employs 20,000 massage therapists, makes more than $1.3 billion in annual sales, has 1.6 million members nationwide, and recently expanded to Australia. Although competitors have popped up, Massage Envy still holds a 67% share of the franchised day-spa market, according to a 2016 study by research firm IBISWorld. The chain, which regularlytops “best franchises to buy” lists, excels at capitalizing on the “self-care” zeitgeist by advertising its services, which now include skin care, as “body maintenance” instead of a luxury. Massage Envy’s purple-logoed storefronts have become a strip mall staple.
Massage Envy holds a 67% share of the franchised day-spa market.
Last year, a young woman sued a Massage Envy franchise in Winter Park, Florida, after her massage therapist put his finger in her vagina. She said in a deposition that she had trusted the brand completely.
“I thought of the fact that, you know, Massage Envy is such a reputable company and I’ve gotten massages from there before,” she said. “I mean, you know, they’re kind of like Publix, you see them everywhere.”
Massage Envy advertises itself to potential owners and investors as “one of the fastest growing franchises” in a multibillion-dollar arena: “Now is the ideal time to capitalize on the unprecedented growth and demand,” its website says. But while Massage Envy and its competitors have created more jobs than ever before, research shows massage schools are graduating fewer qualified therapists to take them. Many industry observers say that as a result, franchises are not able to be as selective with whom they hire.
The company points out that the franchise model, which limits the role it can take in any spa’s day-to-day operations, has a “long and honorable” history in American business.
“Many of the best-known service brands in the world operate in a franchise environment, including iconic businesses in the restaurant, hotel, senior care, daycare, education, auto repair, fitness, weight management and hair care sectors, in addition to the massage and skincare service sector,” Hansen said.
But Gina Liccardo, a New York City massage therapist, says that model doesn’t translate well to her field. “You can’t compare running a fast-food joint to laying your hands on someone’s body,” she said.
Hiring people straight out of school and placing them under the supervision of managers and owners who may have no experience with massage is a particularly dangerous combination, said Adam Horowitz, a lawyer who has sued dozens of Massage Envy spas.
“When you get a massage, your guard is down completely. You’re not expecting to be violated.”
“An inordinate amount of people are attracted to massage therapy because of sexual interest,” said Horowitz, who used to represent plaintiffs in sex abuse cases against the Catholic Church. “Just like there was opportunity in the priesthood, there’s opportunity in the massage room. When you get a massage, your guard is down completely. You’re not expecting to be violated.”
Kayla Seely, a former director of operations for four Massage Envy spas on the East Coast, rejected the idea that Massage Envy’s business model poses a particular risk. “There are bad eggs in every industry,” she said. “There’s never going to be something you can do to 100% prevent things from happening.”
In her experience, she said, Massage Envy corporate did everything it could to ensure therapists “knew every protocol inside and out.” All Massage Envy therapists undergo background checks and are informed of an extensive zero-tolerance policy toward, among other things, inappropriate touching and actions “that infer sexual suggestiveness or explicit sexuality.” Names of any therapists found to have violated the policy are entered into an internal database to keep them from working at a Massage Envy spa again.
Despite these measures, the company acknowledges that sexual assault remains a risk. “There are no policies in any business that can ensure that an employee of a business will not break the law,” Hansen said. Massage Envy requires franchisees to buy an insurance rider that protects them and the national company against at least three sexual assault claims per year, according to one franchise agreement reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Only one question is marked “critical”: “Could it negatively impact Massage Envy’s Spa Brand?”
If franchisees fail to follow Massage Envy’s policies, “our right as a franchisor is generally limited to enforcement of our contractual rights under the franchise agreement (and other related agreements), including, when appropriate, terminating the franchise,” Hansen said. More than 20 franchise agreements have been terminated because of their policies on inappropriate conduct, she said.
The company’s leadership has long feared the media would realize the national scope of the problem, said a former corporate employee, who spoke anonymously because of a nondisparagement agreement. That person recalled executives discussing what would happen “if someone connects the dots of how many sexual assaults have occurred across the country.”
“But while I was there,” the employee added, “they never figured out a solution.”
In at least one risk management training, franchisees were told the goal when investigating claims is “to avoid police and keep membership,” according to one recently filed court motionin Susan Ingram’s case.
A communication guide from 2014, obtained by BuzzFeed News, directs employees facing potential crises to consider questions such as “Who is responsible?” “Can it happen again?” and “How will it affect me, my guest/members, or the clinic?”
There’s only one question written in bold type and marked “critical”: “Could it negatively impact Massage Envy’s Spa Brand?”
In October 2015, Danielle Dick was assaulted at a Virginia Massage Envy when her therapist grabbed her by the scalp, placed his hand over her mouth, then put his fingers in her vagina. Afterward, he told Dick it was “our little secret.”
Dick immediately reported the assault to the desk manager. “It was clear that she had no idea what to do,” Dick told BuzzFeed News. “She was like a deer in the headlights.”
The manager told Dick they didn’t have to call the police because the franchise would handle it internally. The next day, a spa employee called Dick to tell her she understood she was “unhappy with the massage experience” and that they wouldn’t charge her for it.
“Then they went back to business as usual, and my entire life was turned over,” Dick said. She reported the therapist to the police herself. Although he was convicted of felony sexual battery the next year, Massage Envy still refers to the incident as an “alleged” assault, Dick said, because her lawsuit is pending.
In October, Dick wrote about her experience and launched a Change.org petition that received over 50,000 signatures. Afterward, Massage Envy corporate told local media that it had reached out to her “to continue to listen to and better understand her concerns and ideas.”
The company did reach out after Dick went public, she told BuzzFeed News — but it also let her know it was considering taking legal action. Hansen says she has an appointment to meet with Dick later this month and will listen to any suggestions the former client has to offer.
It might be an interesting conversation. “The way that Massage Envy has treated me,” Dick wrote online, “clearly indicates a company that issues statements saying the right things to protect its corporate brand, but is unwilling to do anything to support victims of assault.”
When new employees watch “Behind Closed Doors,” Massage Envy’s required training program, they’re greeted by a photo of Hansen. “Managers and franchisees must understand how to handle complaints of inappropriate conduct,” she tells them. “This training will help accomplish all those things.”
When a guest makes an allegation against a therapist, the immediate goal is to address the guest’s concerns “in a safe and secure environment in order to retain them as a valued client and avoid negative attention,” a voiceover explains.
Managers are directed to offer these guests water and observe their “demeanor or any other behavior that may go towards credibility.” While the manager investigates, any therapist accused of breaching Massage Envy’s zero-tolerance policy should be suspended.
As to how the investigation should be conducted, the video says nothing.
If, by whatever means, a therapist is found to have violated the zero-tolerance policy, that person must be fired. If on the other hand the facts are “inconclusive,” the manager is simply instructed to consider steps the spa “might take to ensure incidents of this nature do not happen again.”
Employees are tested on three scenarios. In the first, Chandler, a client, accuses Monica, his massage therapist, of pressing too hard on his back. In the second, another massage therapist named Ross offers to photograph the upcoming wedding of his client Rachel. In the third, a therapist named Joey texts his client Phoebe after-hours to tell her he thinks she is “really sexy.” The last of these three, employees are told, is a fireable offense.
None of these scenarios resemble anything close to sexual assault, which may help explain why managers are so often accused of mishandling it. It’s one thing to confront an employee about a text message, and quite another to determine what happened in a dark room, with no witnesses, when a coworker’s professional standing or even freedom hangs in the balance.
“When you work with people day in and day out, it can be hard to see them as capable of doing something like that.”
“When you work with people day in and day out, it can be hard to see them as capable of doing something like that,” said Christina, a massage therapist who has worked at multiple Massage Envy spas on the West Coast.
Further complicating matters, managers aren’t given any guidance on how to assess the credibility of accusers. For example, they aren’t instructed on the effects of shock, which often renders trauma victims unable to give full and accurate accounts right away of what happened.
Managers must file a report about their investigation using the franchise’s automated incident reporting tool, which copies the director of franchise operations, the regional director, and the corporate legal department. After that, Massage Envy closely monitors and reviews all incident reports for compliance with their brand standards, Hansen said.
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, Hansen said that “As a franchisor of a service brand, we are not experts in investigating criminal acts” so the company advises spas “to secure expert help as needed to investigate incidents.” That advice does not appear in the recent “Behind Closed Doors” training videos.
A 2017 policy obtained by BuzzFeed News clarifies that in “certain situations,” a franchisee “should consider” reporting an incident to local authorities. It does not say when during the investigation that should happen. No examples are listed, beyond observing any local laws that might require it.
Experts say that the nature of the massage profession — in which clients allow virtual strangers to touch their nearly naked bodies in private rooms — can make assault claims particularly hard to assess. It may be the client who is accused of inappropriately touching the therapist, or one employee who reports another.
Other complaints might have less to do with sexual predation than with individual sensitivities, such as discomfort with being massaged in more vulnerable areas. Some complaints turn out to be false. For all of these reasons, state regulatory boards and other agencies employ trained investigators who can step in, said Ahmos Netanel, CEO of the California Massage Therapy Council.
“It’s beneficial for all sides to have an experienced professional examine the situation and come up with professional and objective conclusions,” he said.
In January 2016, a Massage Envy client wanted to report that her therapist had groped her breasts and vagina during a session at a Sacramento spa two days prior — she was so shocked that she needed time to process, she told BuzzFeed News. She couldn’t figure out how to call the corporate office, so she sent an email to email@example.com on Jan. 5, asking someone to call her back because she felt she had “been violated” by her massage therapist. “There was no corporate phone number on your website and I was instructed to email,” she wrote.
Adding insult to injury, Massage Envy continued to charge her membership fees for two months.
By Jan. 12, she hadn’t heard back, so she filed a complaint with the California Massage Therapy Council. The therapist was still working at the spa — in fact, on Jan. 16, another woman reported him to the council for misconduct, records show. But a regional manager from Massage Envy didn’t call the woman until Jan. 25, her attorney said.
Adding insult to injury, the woman said, Massage Envy continued to charge her membership fees for two months, even though she told the manager she never wanted to return.
Massage Envy says it doesn’t require spas to report allegations of sexual assault in jurisdictions that don’t require it in part because the company has consulted with experts who say victims should maintain control over that “critical decision.” Hansen, the company’s general counsel, said that approach is consistent with the position of leading organizations such as the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
But Kati N. Lake, an executive of that organization (which has never worked with Massage Envy), says its recommendations are not that simple.
A zero-tolerance policy is important, Lake said, but there are many other factors to consider, such as how easy a company makes it for clients to register complaints and how well it trains its managers to handle these investigations, which are difficult for all involved.
“You’re not prepared mentally,” said Amanda Owens, a former Massage Envy franchise owner in North Carolina. “What happens immediately when someone complains? How do you talk to the customer? If you’re a woman,” and the accused is a man, “how do you approach him and not feel threatened?”
Kandice Martellaro was a receptionist at a Los Angeles Massage Envy spa when she reported being sexually assaulted by a therapist. No action was taken, she said.
“I could never tell with our specific clinic administrator if she was being really clever and trying to brush it under the rug,” Martellaro said, “or she just sincerely didn’t know how to handle it.”
On Sept. 17, 2017, Tara Woodley visited a Massage Envy in Washington, DC, to celebrate a new job by getting a relaxing Swedish massage. While Woodley’s eyes were closed, her therapist put his tongue on her vagina and started to lick her, according to a lawsuit she filed later that month. Woodley jumped up and covered herself, after which the therapist grabbed her hand and begged for forgiveness, she said, swearing he had never done that before.
In fact, two other women said they had reported the same therapist to Massage Envy spas. Three months earlier, when the therapist was working at a Maryland Massage Envy run by the same owner, a woman reported that he had touched her inappropriately. She asked to cancel her membership, she told her local NBC station, but the spa’s management would only give her a free spa day as a courtesy — and told her the therapist had been transferred to DC.
Then, on Sept. 5, another woman reported the therapist to the spa that Woodley would later attend. The therapist had pulled the woman’s underwear to the side and pressed his face to her vagina, according to the police report she later filed. Yet the therapist was still allowed to continue working there, up through his September 17 appointment with Woodley.
“It’s so gut-wrenching that women had reported him to management, trying to create change, and Massage Envy just turned a blind eye,” Woodley told BuzzFeed News. Her husband convinced her to call 911 right away, after which the other women came forward. “If he hadn’t, I may have done what those women did, and he could have assaulted more women in the future,” Woodley said.
Although Massage Envy Franchising says it leads the industry when it comes to sexual assault policies, it also argues in court filings that as a company that sells franchise agreements rather than employing individual massage therapists, it should bear no liability in clients’ sexual assault lawsuits. It’s hard to know how these cases are resolved, since they are settled under strict confidentiality clauses.
But a case scheduled to go to trial in January may shed some light.
Susan Ingram and seven other women have brought lawsuits against the West Chester Spa — the one where she was assaulted, and where she says the manager refused to halt the massage therapist’s next appointment — and Massage Envy LLC. Ingram’s lawyers have argued that despite the company’s claims that it plays no role in investigations of inappropriate conduct, it in fact dictates the way they are conducted and followed, and oversees their progress. The West Chester spa had only reported one of the prior complaints to corporate headquarters, but in depositions, the manager said a regional supervisor approved of the way it was handled and didn’t say to call police.
A franchise consultant who has worked with Massage Envy before said the company was in a particularly tricky position.
“There’s no way to prevent issues from arising at franchisees,” the person acknowledged. “But we’re talking about people getting sexually assaulted on tables in dark rooms, in national brands.”
“You have to be human first,” the consultant added. “You have to think if your daughter or mother or aunt or grandmother came to you with a claim, how would you react?”
Last year, Ingram helped US Rep. Pat Meehan of Pennsylvania introduce bipartisan federal legislation that would require owners and employees of massage spas to report allegations of sexual assault to police. “Reporting alleged assault will help victims understand their rights, like pursuing an investigation and pressing charges, and the resources available,” Meehan said. The bill would also require owners to publicly display policies about preventing and responding to sexual assault.
If passed, the legislation “will protect women when billion-dollar companies like Massage Envy fail to do the right thing,” Ingram said.
Nearly every day, she drives past the Massage Envy where she was assaulted.
“It’s so hard to resist the urge to walk in that front door and say, How could you have let this happen?” she said. “And how can you continue to let it happen, over and over?” ●