This story has been updated throughout.
PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — A Sioux Falls masseuse faces possible discipline for allegedly allowing an unlicensed individual to perform massage therapy at her place of business.
HaiLing Zhang (HAY-ling zang) is accused of engaging in unprofessional conduct and violating the ban against owning, operating or managing a business that knowingly employs or contracts with an unlicensed person to offer or provide massage therapy.
The state Board of Massage Therapy considered the matter on Wednesday and listened to more than four hours of testimony, including an interpreter speaking Mandarin, and lawyers’ arguments. Board president Fallon Helm of Aberdeen said she and the two other members will wait to make a decision until after they can spend time reviewing the transcript.
“We’ll go through that, especially with all the technology and concerns, challenges, we’ve had here today, and in and out of the session breaks. If anybody else has any feedback, once we get those we can also collaborate and get a little bit more counsel as far as making sure we are within our due diligence and make sure we present it as best as possible not only for the board but also for the public, which is my primary concern,” Helm said.
According to the formal complaint, the board received notification of a claim of misconduct on August 3, 2022. HaiLing Zhang was contacted on August 12, 2022, about the allegations. An investigator for the board then met with her and she reportedly agreed that she would no longer allow the unlicensed individual to perform massage therapy at her place of business.
The board however later learned that she was continuing to allow the same unlicensed individual to perform massage therapy at her business. The board then suspended her license at its September 19, 2023, meeting.
HaiLing Zhang gave her side Wednesday, with the help of an interpreter. She was born in Beijing, China, and is in the United States as an immigrant holding a Permanent Resident Card, known as a Green Card. She said Hongjie Yu is her boyfriend who would cook for her or bring food to the store. He is the person who has been performing massages without a license at Go Sun, which she runs in the Empire Mall.
HaiLing Zhang testified in what was described as Mandarin. According to the interpreter, Zhang told the board, “She realized that before when Hongjie was (unintelligible) she didn’t know it was wrong, didn’t know that, she realized that it was not correct after when she tried to renew her license and they didn’t allow to do that. She realized so she closed the store for ten weeks now. That she wasn’t aware, before she wasn’t aware that was not the right thing, that was wrong.”
Zhang next said, according to the interpreter, “She said that she asked for the massage board to give her another chance, because this is all her income. She has to pay thousands of dollars for a house and car and all that, and she knows that, not to do this again, and even if it’s a close member or family member, she would not have the person, the close person, work in her business. For even delivering food she would run to get the food instead of having him deliver it to the store.”
Zhang’s attorney in the matter is Robert Christenson of Sioux Falls. He didn’t deny on Wednesday that she allowed Hongjie Yu to give massages at Go Spa. “All the affidavits, all the exhibits, they’re true… They did happen,” he told the board. “But she didn’t knowingly break the law. And when she finally sunk in — the language barrier — she shut her business down.”
Christenson added, “We’re just asking for a little understanding. If you want to punish her or send her a letter or shut her down for a few weeks, do it. But don’t shut her down for life. This is the only way she can make a living.”
The special prosecutor in the case, state Department of Health attorney Tamara Lee, asked the board to revoke Zhang’s license. Lee said that Zhang’s answers and statements at times during the hearing Wednesday showed that Zhang had some understanding of English and had learned how to conduct business and pay taxes during her 10 years in the U.S.
“The evidence has clearly and convincingly shown that Miss Zhang knew that Hongjie Yu was not a licensed massage therapist in South Dakota and she continued to allow him to provide massages at her business Go Spa,” Lee told the board.
She added, “Early as August 29, 2022, there is an admission that she knows he is not to be there, and yet we have evidence that says he continues to be there — not only the witnesses put on earlier, but Miss Zhang herself admitted he has continued to be there.”
Lee also noted, “She was interviewed or had the meeting with the investigator back in October of 2022. His report says she acknowledges that what she did was wrong and she understands she can’t do that and she won’t do it any more, and yet she continues to do it. And that was the basis of the two complaints, the two formal complaints that were filed in this, because initially this was going to be just a letter of ‘Okay, she gets it now, she’s not going to do it any more.’ But because she continued to do it, that’s why we’re here today, that’s why the two complaints were filed.”
According to the official complaint file, the board’s executive secretary, Melissa Miller, emailed Christenson on January 24, 2023, because a certified letter to HaiLing Zhang had been returned undelivered and she hadn’t responded to an email.
An excerpt from Miller’s email to her attorney says, “The complainant has witnessed Hongjie Yu at Go Spa doing a massage and she has contacted us stating that she is concerned that Zhang still has this unlicensed person practicing massage therapy in the area behind a floor-to-ceiling curtain in Go Spa. This is a great concern to the Massage Therapy Board as her license is suspended subject to a formal hearing on this matter.”
Her attorney responded by email, “I will get the letter to her.”
Another email, from Christenson to Miller, is also in the complaint file. In the email, sent August 25, 2023, Christenson said his understanding was that HaiLing Zhang intended to apply for renewal of her license.
He further stated, “I understand the issue before the Board. I am also aware that the person’s testimony who filed the complaint against HaiLing was discredited and the witnesses’ testimony was determined to be untruthful.”
Christenson claimed that she wasn’t to blame. “It appears to me the person you should continue to focus on Hongjie Yu. His acts have placed Hailing in a tight spot with the Board — that is Certain.”
He went on, “HaiLing’s state of mind was that Hongjie was a licensed massage therapist and had the license to prove it (from China). She was mistaken in believing that Hongjie’s license would automatically transfer to South Dakota.”
Later in the email, Christenson wrote, “Hailing did not engage in any conduct which would endanger any client or person. If she did not comply with all the rules it was because of ignorance and honest mistake.”
On September 8, 2023, Christenson provided an affidavit to the board from Yang Yu, who described Hongjie Yu as a childhood friend and identified him as HaiLing Zhang’s boyfriend. Yang Yu stated that Hongjie Yu performed massage on the shoulder and neck of Yang Yu “on at least two occasions” but didn’t charge for it.
Christenson also provided the board with an affidavit from Hongjie Yu, in which he said he provided the treatments to Yang Yu “as a friend,” didn’t charge for them and never represented that he was working on behalf of HaiLing Zhang.
On October 5, 2023, the special prosecutor in the case, Lee, served a subpoena for “All invoices and billing statements from the years 2021, 2022, and 2023 for services provided by Hongjie Yu to individuals and/or customers at Go Spa.”
On October 18, 2023, Christenson served a subpoena on the board to produce all documents, notes and records in the case, including those from the investigator in the matter, Loren Pankratz of Sioux Falls, who also serves on the board.
Pankratz appeared as a witness Wednesday. Because he was the board’s investigator, he doesn’t get to vote on the case.
Since 2007, the board has formally revoked two other licenses.
The current case began when a Sioux Falls woman who had been a customer for about a year accused Hongjie Yu of sexual contact without consent with a person capable of consent, while he gave her a massage in 2022. A Minnehaha County jury acquitted him on July 14, 2023.
The woman testified Wednesday that she confronted Hongjie Yu and HaiLing Zhang about the matter shortly after the alleged incident and told them she no longer would be a customer. On two later times, she said she noticed Hongjie Yu giving massages at Go Spa and she took videos with her phone.
In both instances, she said, HaiLing Zhang tried to stop her from recording. She provided one of the videos to Pankratz, who then advised Miller to reconsider his recommendation that a reprimand letter be issued with follow-up spot checks.
HaiLing Zhang and Hongjie Yu face criminal charges in Minnehaha County court for allegedly practicing massage or representing in practice without a license.