New king of driving schools?

January 15, 2006 

Gary Probst’s driving-school empire is about to change hands.

While Probst grapples with charges that his business violated state law, his son Sean is trying to open 40 new driving schools throughout the state.

Though the schools would have a different name, they would operate in the same buildings, the same storefronts, the same rooms as the schools owned or controlled by Gary Probst, his family members and business partners.

It’s not clear whether the state will grant permission. The Department of Licensing hasn’t acted on Sean Probst’s school applications, which were submitted in late December and early January.

The move complicates an intricate duel between the state and Gary Probst that is entering its second decade.

In the past, changes in ownership and franchise names have been a regular feature of the tussle.

The younger Probst wants to open 40 “Dynasty Driving Schools,” according to records from the licensing department.

Agency spokesman Brad Benfield said the approval process typically takes two to three months. He added that assessing 40 applications at once could take longer.

Sean Probst says his business is independent, separate from the franchises his father built – Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School.

Since 2002, more than 25,000 students have graduated from the Gary Probst schools.

“I, me, independently, am trying to do something here,” Sean Probst said Friday. “I don’t want any ties with my dad. I don’t want anything to do with that situation.”

Records from the Secretary of State’s Office show that Sean Probst created the Dynasty Driving corporation in November.

“I’m trying to provide advanced training at a lower price than my competition,” he said in an interview.

He spoke of plans to create driver-safety campaigns in the schools, the use of an electric car in his courses (“to be environmentally friendly”) and his interest in providing free online driver training.

“My goal is to make sure that driver’s ed is affordable to all people and that everyone is running it as efficiently and effectively as possible,” he said.

following the finances

Recent classified ads in The News Tribune appear to be linked to the Dynasty franchise. They offer jobs to driving instructors. The contact phone number is Gary Probst’s home in Midland.

Two job applicants called The News Tribune last week, saying that when they called the number, they were told they would be working for Dynasty.

When asked about it, Sean Probst said that was untrue.

“They will not be working for Dynasty,” he said. “That’s absolutely false.”

Benfield said the licensing department will examine Sean Probst’s claims of financial independence.

The issue is likely to play a pivotal role in the state’s decision regarding his proposed schools.

Previous court rulings and investigations of Gary Probst concluded he violated state law by wielding financial control of driving schools while concealing his interest and control.

“Under state law, finding an undisclosed financial interest in a school is cause for denial of an application or revocation of a license,” Benfield said. “So it’s going to be a factor in all applications that we review.”

Records show Gary Probst leases 29 of the classrooms Sean Probst intends to use. Other Probst family members lease five more classrooms.

Five additional classrooms are leased by Bruce Richey and Troy Stewart – business partners of Gary Probst who are also named in the state’s charges.

“Current charges don’t prevent them from working in the driving-school industry,” Benfield said. “But a new school license might be difficult while charges are pending.”

Sean Probst openly admits the lease arrangements in his applications. They include letters from Gary Probst, family members and associates, granting permission to use the classrooms.

Sean Probst says the locations are temporary, and that he will try to relocate them in the future.

The question is, will the state allow it?

“That is an issue that we’re going to have to resolve during the application review process,” Benfield said. “It’s basically a legal question that we’re going to have to look at.”

Gary Probst, owner of the largest commercial driving-school chain in the state, faces charges that he and his partners provided false information on school license applications: He did not disclose a 1990 military conviction that led to his dismissal from the Army.

As a chaplain at Fort Lewis, he falsely claimed a record of bravery in combat, and wore medals he hadn’t earned.

He has declined numerous requests from The News Tribune for comment on the charges and other allegations.

hearing still awaits

If sustained, the charges could close 41 of his schools and suspend or revoke his license to teach driving.

Probst has appealed, but the state is still preparing for a hearing that would settle the dispute.

“We’re currently scheduling and holding the prehearing conferences with the affected school owners,” Benfield said. “It’s a routine part of administrative law process. During conferences, we set dates for hearings and negotiate all that stuff. We have more scheduled to be held within the next 30 days, including Gary.”

After the licensing department filed charges against Gary Probst in October, he and his associates submitted letters to the state, seeking permission to remove his name as an owner or co-owner.

The licensing department refused to accept the claims, saying it would accept no ownership transfers until the case against Gary Probst was resolved.

Around the same time, unsigned statements appeared on his school Web sites, claiming he was no longer a partner in the schools, and that the state’s charges affected only Gary Probst, not the schools.

The licensing department called the statements untrue, noting the charges applied to the schools as well as to Gary Probst.

The state’s investigation also led to charges against Sean Probst last year.

The state found he allowed uncertified instructors to teach driving, and did not disclose his father’s financial interest in a Puyallup driving school.

Saturday, Sean Probst said the charges against him stemmed from a technical discrepancy in state law.

He said the state’s information came from a disgruntled employee who no longer works for him. He denied his father had financial ties to the school. (State records show Gary Probst held the lease for the classrooms.)

“I was definitely financially independent,” he said. “There was never any proof of me being financially dependent on my father.”

Sean Probst’s license was suspended for six months – the suspension ended last week, just as his applications to open new schools arrived. Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

A recent News Tribune series, "License to Shill," chronicled Gary Probst's 10-year battle with state regulators and his efforts to circumvent state law.

More than 40 state investigations of Probst's schools found hundreds of students received shabby or incomplete training from at least 20 unlicensed teachers, including two convicted felons, a confessed forger and people hiding behind false identities, all of them working for Probst's franchises.

Parents, students and former employees accused Probst and his associates of committing forgery and fraud.

Records show hundreds of students received credit for classes they didn't attend. Others never received the four hours of behind-the-wheel training required by the state. Computer-assisted analysis established that graduates of Probst's schools failed their state driver licensing tests more often than their peers who attended other schools.

In the last three years, the investigations prompted more than 23 suspensions of driving instructors and school owners and temporary shutdowns of at least six schools. Probst's partners and associates, including Sean Probst, were disciplined, though the elder Probst was not.

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