Alabama lawmakers made a rare move Thursday to dissolve the state board that licenses and collects fees from massage therapists after finding multiple, persistent management issues with the appointed body and its contracted executive director.
The Joint Sunset Committee also came close to nixing the board that oversees bail bondsmen over fee and management issues, but relented after passionate pleas from board members — and some blame tossed at another, previous contracted executive director.
Thursday’s discussions were part of a recent crackdown by the Sunset Committee on the dozens of small state boards that regulate and collect money from thousands of workers in Alabama, from general contractors to electricians to auctioneers and cosmetologists.
Meanwhile, some lawmakers say the issues highlighted this week strengthen their argument that management of occupational licensure boards would be better handled by an umbrella state agency.
“There is a pattern of issues that can only be seen as unprofessional,” said Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Josephine, who observed the meetings. He said managing fees and making sure they’re allowed under law, adhering to public meeting rules and making sure board members meet basic qualifications to serve “are basic functions of government.”
He will sponsor an occupational board consolidation bill in the 2024 legislative session.
Concerns about the Massage Therapy Board started earlier this year when lawmakers, led by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, moved to undo significant licensee fee increases — approved by lawmakers in 2022 — on massage therapists. The board’s executive director, Keith Warren, previously said the increases were needed to help the board fight human trafficking and sex abuse within the industry. Lawmakers questioned whether that was the job of law enforcement, not the board, and how that money was spent.
On Thursday, sunset committee members questioned Warren extensively on why a massage establishment in Gudger’s district was still open after multiple complaints of illicit behavior and a police raid.
Warren and his Smith Warren Company manage 15 boards. In exchange, it was paid a combined about $1.6 million in 2022.
A recently completed audit by the Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, which regularly audits all state government agencies, found 13 issues with the massage board, including Warren being paid his monthly fee before services were provided, noncompliance with open meeting rules, waiting two months before notifying the Secretary of State of a board member resignation, and issuing a license to someone who hadn’t met requirements.
And, significantly, the board is still charging licensees fees outside of what is allowed under a law change approved earlier this year.
Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville, made the motion to sunset the board, meaning that unless a lawmaker intervenes in the 2024 session, the board’s authority will not extend beyond September 2024.
“The idea is that we’d install a new board that would be assembled to take place before then,” Givhan told ADN Thursday evening. He also favors putting massage licensing under an umbrella agency via Elliott’s legislation.
“I think that idea has a lot of merit,” he said. Plusses could include cost savings for licensees if every profession isn’t paying for an executive director and administrative services.
In an email to ADN, Warren said the board will continue to work with the Sunset Committee correcting all its significant issues and complying with the 2023 legislation.
“We appreciate all the comments and opportunity to answer questions and we will strongly work to look into the matters discussed (Thursday) even further,” he said.
Sunset co-chair Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, said he only knows of one board that was terminated via the sunset process, and that was a long time ago.
His committee rotates each year the boards it reviews and reauthorizes. He said he hopes boards that will come before the committee in the upcoming years are paying attention.
“I think they will see the attitude the sunset committee has, how in-depth we’re looking and how serious we’re taking our job,” Barfoot said. “And maybe they’ll self-correct between now and whenever we review them.”
Multiple lawmakers on Thursday said they’d been prepared to end a relatively new state board that regulates the bail bond industry over issues with the fees it’s charging nearly 900 licensees.
The Professional Bail Bonding Board was created via legislation in 2019 and one board member on Thursday said many of the issues found in state audits were because of a previous contracted manager.
“We relied heavily on a subpar and inferior executive director,” board member and Houston County Circuit Clerk Carla Woodall told the committee.
A recent audit by the examiners’ office found multiple issues with the board, including in some of the fees it collects.
A previous audit said the board issued licenses to bail bondsmen who had completed an instructional course but had not completed an exam that was supposed to be required by the board. Board members said the issue is being addressed and the first exams will be conducted in October.
The board also passed rules requiring all employees of a bonding agency who interact with the public to have licenses, including those doing clerical work. State law says that only those who present themselves as bondsmen must have licenses.
The issue is still unresolved, the latest audit says.
But board members argued that felons aren’t allowed to work as bail bondsmen and the licensure requirement keeps companies from hiring them under the guise of being a receptionist or clerk.
“We don’t want to leave that loophole because that’s how these felons were operating,” board member and Mobile County District Judge Spiro Cheriogotis told the committee.
A 2022 audit said the board charged four different fees not authorized by state law. That issue is also still not completely resolved.
Other previous issues include not complying with the state’s open meeting law or requirements that the board use federal systems, including E-Verify, to check licensees’ employment eligibility.
“We’re still trying to correct things … we need more time,’ said Woodall, who said as an elected official, her reputation is tied to the performance of the bail bond board.
Woodall’s appeal to the committee worked.
“I was all on board with sunsetting your committee because of the fact that (sunset) has said, ‘You’ve got problems, fix them’; you’ve got problems, fix them…” committee member Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, told Woodall. Simpson, a former prosecutor in Mobile and Baldwin counties, said he knew Woodall and Cheriogotis and their word went far with him.
The bail board last year hired Warren for administrative services.
“I’ve read the media, I understand the concern about our current executive director,” Woodall said. “But I am telling you that I’ve dealt with an inferior executive director. I don’t want to go backward.”
Claire Austin is the previous executive director, according to state records.
Austin, who manages other state boards, on Thursday said that she had disagreed with a lot of the bail board’s actions when she worked for it until January 2022.
“They did not follow my advice, unfortunately,” she told Alabama Daily News. “They did a lot of things I would have never done and they crossed a lot of lines. There is no reason that these mistakes haven’t been fixed in the last 18 months.”