Drive-school king gets his day in court

September 29, 2006 

Gary Probst, Washington’s drive-school king, was in no mood to pose for photos Thursday, but he didn’t have a choice.

Before a brief arraignment in Thurston County Superior Court, he objected to the presence of a News Tribune photographer. Judge Paula Casey let the photographer stay.

During the arraignment, Probst tried to shield his face with a folder. A few moments later, he departed swiftly with his attorney.

The charge against Probst: one count of first-degree theft, a felony. The alleged means: tax evasion. State attorneys say Probst dodged $14,052 in state sales and use taxes on 16 cars bought for his driving schools. His plea: Not guilty.

The trial is set for the week of Dec. 18.

Probst didn’t offer a comment on the charge Thursday, and his attorney, Rick Klessig, didn’t return a phone call.

Charging documents say Probst, 53, bought the cars in Washington, but registered their titles in Oregon, using an Oregon driver’s license with an address that traces to a strip-mall mailbox. Probst claimed it was his residence, though he lives in Midland, and his business operation is based in Lakewood.

The single charge represents the tip of an almost year-long investigation by the state that could wreck Probst’s empire. He already faces separate administrative charges linked to 41 of his driving schools, filed last year by the state Department of Licensing.

A conviction in the criminal case could cost Probst his licenses to own schools and teach driving, even if he prevails in the administrative case. Hearings on that matter begin Wednesday in Tacoma.

The administrative charges accuse Probst and his business partners of providing false information on drive-school license applications. The applications show Probst was asked whether he had ever been convicted of a crime involving “violence, dishonesty, deceit, indecency, degeneracy or moral turpitude.”

He answered “no,” and did not disclose a 1990 military conviction. While serving as chaplain at Fort Lewis, Probst was found guilty of lying about his service record and wearing medals for bravery he never earned.

A recent amendment to the administrative charges adds an accusation of forgery on other school applications.

A 2005 News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” chronicled Probst’s 10-year battle with state regulators, and revealed more than 40 separate investigations of Probst’s schools.

The series noted that many of the approximately 25,000 teens who attended his schools between 2001 and 2005 received shabby or incomplete instruction, in some cases from felons or unlicensed instructors hiding behind false names.

After the series appeared, the Legislature passed new laws, stiffening oversight of commercial driving schools.

During Thursday’s arraignment on the criminal charges, assistant attorney general Scott Marlow handed a thick packet of discovery documents to Klessig, Probst’s attorney.

Marlow later said the packet was about 900 pages long. He expects to deliver two more packets, each about the same size, before the trial begins. State attorneys haven’t ruled out filing additional charges, he said.

Though Probst didn’t want his picture taken, he couldn’t avoid one more. He wasn’t held in custody, but standard court rules gave him 24 hours to show up for booking. That meant fingerprints and a mug shot.

What’s next for Probst

Drive-school king Gary Probst faces a hearing beginning Wednesday in Tacoma on administrative charges filed by the state Department of Licensing. Probst and his business partners are accused of providing false information on license applications.

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