Bill gets tough on drive schools

February 18, 2006 

Renegade driving-school owners and instructors have flouted state law for years, but they would have a harder time of it under a proposed law backed by the state Department of Licensing.

House Bill 2829, passed Feb. 11 by the House of Representatives on an 82-13 vote, would increase background check requirements at commercial driving schools, expand the definition of fraudulent business practices and ramp up the number and frequency of state inspections.

While sponsors and DOL leaders don’t say it openly, the bill owes its momentum to Midland resident Gary Probst, owner of the largest driving-school franchise in the state. A News Tribune series published last year chronicled Probst’s 10-year battle with state regulators and his efforts to circumvent state law.

The series, “License to Shill,” uncovered more than 40 state inquiries into Probst’s schools.

The state found evidence of unlicensed instructors, falsified records, stolen identities and illegal ownership agreements. Probst has since been charged with providing false information on applications to operate 41 schools around the state. He is appealing the charges, and the case remains active.

Under current law, only driving-school instructors are required to receive background checks. The new law would expand the requirement to owners and other employees.

“I was shocked and appalled that background checks were not required by driver school personnel,” said state Rep. Deb Wallace, the bill’s sponsor.

The Vancouver Democrat said her daughter’s instructor went to Krispy Kreme and fast-food drive-throughs during driving practice.

A stronger definition of fraudulent business practices takes aim at another Probst tactic revealed by the state’s investigation. Probst often used confidential ownership agreements to conceal his financial interest in schools, the state found. The new law would mandate broader disclosure of all parties holding a financial interest in a school.

A pair of Probst’s business partners testified against the bill during recent public hearings, without revealing their ties to the driving-school king or the active state charges against them.

State records show that Bruce Richey and Troy Stewart own several driving schools in partnership with Probst. Both men are named in the DOL’s charges against Probst and his associates.

Richey and Stewart described themselves as school owners and touted their membership in the Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation. They did not add that Probst is the group’s president and founder or that its members consist solely of Probst family members and business partners.

In 2002, the Legislature took the driving-school program from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction and gave it to the DOL because of declining public school budgets for driver’s education. At that time, there were 119 private traffic safety schools and 407 instructors.

As of June 2005, there were 214 schools with more than 800 instructors.

The DOL wasn’t given the financial resources or staffing to properly oversee the industry, said agency Director Liz Luce. The Senate’s supplemental budget includes $738,000 for the DOL to do this.

Parents might not be aware that some traffic safety schools aren’t regulated by the state. With schools ranging from $200 to $600, some parents choose a school that is cheap or close to home.

“You just assume that everything is kosher,” Luce said.

Even though Probst was able to slip through cracks in the state’s bureaucracy, Luce said the bill isn’t to stop just Probst. “The number one killer of our children is auto accidents, and this is really a critical fix,” she said. “I’m going to talk to every senator who lets me in their door, and it’s my top priority for the agency to fix the problem.”

Lorin T. Smith: 360-943-7123

lorin.smith@thenewstribune.com

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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