Feds investigate after USA TODAY report on massage school accused of ties to prostitution

At the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, Minnesota regulators said they found "a theme of prostitution and/or human trafficking."

WASHINGTON – The Education Department plans to review an accrediting agency that approved a college with suspected ties to sex trafficking after a USA TODAY investigation showed links between massage schools and illicit spas.

The college, formerly known as the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, remains accredited, which means its students can take out federal student loans or Pell grants. The Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine has approved the college's ability to receive federal money.

That's despite a finding last year by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that the Roseville, Minnesota, for-profit college had a “theme of prostitution and/or human trafficking.” The state agency quickly ordered the school to close or to find a new owner. The college, which now goes by the name American Academy of Health and Wellness, chose the latter and is preparing to start its fall semester. Its new owner disputes the findings of the Minnesota regulators.

Read the USA TODAY investigation: Fake diplomas. Prostitution arrests. Forged documents. Massage schools accused of feeding illegal business

The news of the federal government's pending inquiry came Wednesday at a meeting of an advisory committee that was reviewing the accreditor.

The Education Department's staff had already recommended the agency keep its accreditation power for another year while addressing some shortcomings in bureaucratic processes. The government didn't mention the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine or its suspected ties to human trafficking in its recommendation.

A majority of the advisory committee voted in favor of the department's suggested action. But five members of the group abstained from voting. (The committee sends its recommendations to the Education Department, but a senior department official decides whether accreditors will keep their power.)

Some of the committee members had wanted to include more discussion of a report from the Seldin / Haring-Smith Foundation, a group whose work first highlighted the American Academy of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine and other oversight problems of massage schools. And some committee members wondered why the accreditor had continued the school's approval.

“If there’s anything that should prompt a death penalty for a school, it would be human trafficking. So why not just kill the school?” asked committee member Robert Shireman, director of higher education excellence at the Century Foundation.

The Department of Education is finalizing a letter asking the accreditor for more information about the situation, said Herman Bounds Jr., who leads the government's accreditation work. The department could take further action after its initial inquiry, he said.

Mark McKenzie, executive director of the Accreditation Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine, said his agency was limited in what it could do about human trafficking within programs it accredits.

Agencies like his don't have the same investigative powers states do, he told the advisory committee. And, he said, the accreditor acted as soon as the state of Minnesota informed it about the school.

Closing a college, McKenzie said, has far-reaching consequences. Still, the accreditor plans to review the college next week, he said.

USA TODAY investigation gets results: Feds cancel reinstated accreditor after USA TODAY finds apparently fake college

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Prostitution? Education Dept probes accreditor who OK'd massage school