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Licensing Gap Leaves Open Door for Massage Parlor

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LINN COUNTY, Iowa A Marion massage establishment is shut down after a prostitution sting, and the owner set up shop in Cedar Rapids.

The story started when Marion Police held a sting at two massage parlors last fall. Police said they proved prostitution was happening inside and shut them down based on a city ordinance. At one of the businesses, Asian Massage, Marion investigators said the owner, Jennifer Dougherty, was arrested after she offered a sex act to a confidential informant for money. Just a few months later; she was arrested again for offering massages without a city license.

The owner of Asian Massage relocated and reopened a massage business under a new name. It's just four miles from its original location. Here's the key: it's across the Marion city line in Cedar Rapids.

"We're aware of the move, but it's not in the City of Marion," said Marion Police Lt. Scott Elam who helped organize the position sting last year.

In a small shop, just behind Papa John's on Center Point Road NE, the massage business is now open. A sign with the words "Bei Jing Massage" and a phone number hangs out front. That phone number matches the number of the former Asian Massage business.

The owner declined to talk to us on camera. She identified herself as Jennifer Dougherty and said she owned Marion's Asian Massage. When asked about her arrest, a language barrier prevented her from answering.

Marion police said they were able to shut down the Marion massage business because of the city's public amusement license laws, which covers massage establishments. After the prostitution sting last year, the city updated the license ordinance to prevent any more problem parlors. Marion's city clerk Wesley Nelson can now enforce it.

"Up until this point we have not required to see the license of the masseuses," Nelson said.

Police said having a license pertaining to massage establishments helped them close the Marion massage establishments after the sting.

"I think it would have been difficult for us, without the city licensing ... to shut those businesses down," said Lt. Elam.

Cedar Rapids can't do much to regulate Bei Jing Massage because the city doesn't have any kind of license for massage therapists or establishments. Diane Weimer works in the Cedar Rapids city clerk's office doing licensing every day. She said the city stopped licensing massage businesses and individuals because the state already licenses individuals.

"At one time they were licensed from 1978 to 1993, [and] then an ordinance was passed that stopped it," Weimer said.

So, despite the short distance between the two cities, when it comes to licensing there's a difference.

"There's definitely a gap between the two cities," Nelson said.

The Marion city clerk added that cities in the metro area typically work together on licensing laws, but sometimes differences leave open doors.

"A lot of businesses, not just massage, but if they thought they were being regulated too heavily, they are going to look for another place to go," Nelson said.

Cedar Rapids police confirmed that they know about the business move, but wouldn't say anything else. The Linn County Attorney did not file the prostitution charge against Dougherty because of questions about the informant Marion police used.

As for any illegal activity, Dougherty is not breaking any city licensing laws by being in Cedar Rapids, and there's no word of any new prostitution charges since the sting in Marion.

According to state law, however, individuals are required to be licensed to provide massage therapy services for compensation. Jennifer Dougherty's name isn't listed on the online database as having an Iowa massage therapist license.

The state's Board of Massage Therapy oversees licensees. They don't have the ability to check every single license, but will investigate complaints. The board said any complaints about any massage therapist must be kept confidential, according to Iowa Code.

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