Gary Probst, Washington’s drive-school king, has been dethroned.
Probst, a Midland resident, has agreed to close his 41 driving schools around the state by Dec. 31, the Department of Licensing announced Wednesday. The schools can’t accept any new students after Oct. 16.
The schools slated for shutdown operate under the franchise names Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School.
They are scattered through 12 counties and represent almost 17 percent of the state’s 242 licensed commercial driving schools – Probst controls the largest market share in Washington. Between 2001 and 2005, approximately 25,000 teens graduated from his schools, state records show.
In King and Pierce counties, Probst owns or co-owns 24 schools. The rest are in Clark, Kitsap, Snohomish, Whatcom, Skagit, Clallam, Jefferson, Benton, Yakima and Spokane counties.
By accepting and signing the settlement with the state, Probst did not admit guilt but acknowledged that the state had sufficient evidence to support factual findings of wrongdoing.
“Basically he just gave up,” said Liz Luce, director of the Department of Licensing. “This is a good thing for our taxpayers, a good thing for the state, a good thing for the students and a good thing for the parents who were investing large amounts and not getting value for their money.”
The shutdown announcement, applauded by Probst’s competitors and ex-partners around the state, forestalled an administrative hearing that would have started Wednesday in Tacoma.
Probst, 53, faced charges of falsifying school records and failing to reveal a 1990 military conviction. A former chaplain at Fort Lewis, Probst was discharged from the Army after he was found guilty of lying about his service record and wearing medals for bravery he never earned.
Probst chose to settle, rejecting the advice of his attorney, Judson Gray, who said the agreement was not an admission of wrongdoing.
“I repeat that strongly, because I don’t think the state had a case at all,” Gray said. “It means he’s not admitting to guilt – it means that based upon the facts as stipulated in the order that a director could find a violation.”
It also means the state is putting Probst out of business, at least for a while.
TERMS OF THE SETTLEMENT
The agreement revokes his license to teach driving for five years. It revokes his school ownership licenses for 10 years.
It forces him to divest all financial interest in any of the schools by Feb. 15, 2007 – a complicated process. Probst must uncouple his name from leases to school classrooms in scores of storefronts and remove his name from telephone and advertising accounts, insurance contracts, business licenses and car titles.
Nor will the schools simply reopen under new management – at least not right away. State records show Probst often shifted management of schools to business partners and family members while retaining undisclosed financial control. In the future, that won’t be so easy.
If any of Probst’s partners wish to reopen, they will have to file new school applications and adhere to a battery of new standards reflecting recent changes to state law that stiffen driving-school requirements.
“It’s going to be literally starting from scratch,” said Brad Benfield, spokesman for the Department of Licensing. “There might be some people out there within his organization that still might have something to contribute to the industry. We don’t want to necessarily paint them all with the same brush. We’re gonna give them an opportunity to show us that they deserve to remain in the industry – but we’re going to watch them.”
Ex-partners who want to open new schools will have to prove that Probst has no financial interest in the new schools, and they will face strict scrutiny from newly hired inspectors utilizing tougher regulations.
“What we’re going to focus on are things that are going to indicate a tie with insurance, with leases, with bank accounts,” Benfield said. “We are going to dig further in the up-front investigations and prelicensing inspections, and in ongoing annual inspections.”
A separate feature of the settlement involves Probst’s daughter, Malia Orbino, who co-owns a number of the schools. The settlement revokes Orbino’s school licenses for 10 years, and mirrors the financial interest requirements applied to her father.
Other partners who were charged in conjunction with Probst still face hearings or decisions from the DOL. Benfield said those cases remain active.
The settlement does not mention Probst’s son Sean, a frequent partner in the family business. Sean Probst attempted to open driving schools earlier this year under a different franchise name: Dynasty Driving School.
Records show most of the Dynasty schools would have opened in the same school classrooms controlled by Gary Probst. The applications have not been approved. Benfield said the state has asked Sean Probst to provide additional information. So far, he hasn’t supplied it.
STATE PRAISED FOR RESTORING TRUST
Competitors and ex-partners of Probst, who have often criticized the state for what they see as lax oversight, offered praise for Wednesday’s decision.
“It’s nice to see that the Department of Licensing has followed through with their commitment of cleaning up the commercial driving school program in the state,” said Steve Kulin, a Vancouver, Wash. drive-school owner who ran afoul of Probst in the late 1990s.
“I’m happy as hell,” said Robert Hall, an Everett drive-school owner who successfully sued Probst in an effort to extricate himself from a business partnership. “I’m totally thrilled that the DOL has stuck to it. It’s been a long, hard ride for them. They could have easily given up but they stuck to it and rid our industry of a real problem. Kids can trust that their instructors will be certified and know what they’re doing – it’s a life or death issue.”
Kulin, who endured an anonymous Internet smear campaign marked by false charges of theft after he severed his relationship with Probst in 2003, said the deposed drive-school king misused considerable talent.
“I think he overall is brilliant,” Kulin said. “The problem is he didn’t do it the right way. If he had done it the right way, think where he would be today.”
PROBST STILL FACES A THEFT CHARGE
The settlement doesn’t end Probst’s legal troubles.
He also faces charges of first-degree theft in Thurston County Superior Court.
State attorneys say he avoided sales and use taxes on cars purchased for his driving schools by titling them in Oregon with a phony address.
The case goes to trial in December. Probst is pleading not guilty. Gray said the demands of fighting that case played into Probst’s reasons for accepting a settlement.
“You can’t fight the state,” he said. “They are large. They have resources.”
A 2005 News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” chronicled Probst’s 10-year battle with state regulators, and revealed that his schools had been investigated more than 40 times. The state found that many students in Probst’s schools were trained by unlicensed instructors, including convicted felons and individuals hiding behind false names.
Gray dismissed the criticism that his client’s schools are unsafe.
“Public safety was never and is not involved in this case,” Gray said. “If there really was a public safety issue, they would have shut down the schools long ago.”
He added that Probst chose to settle out of concern for school workers and managers.
“He did it, whether you believe me or not, for the best interests of the other workers and partners in the drive schools, so that they could go on making a living, hopefully, doing what they do,” Gray said.
TERMS OF THE GARY PROBST SETTLEMENT
A settlement between the state of Washington and Midland resident Gary Probst ends his reign over the state’s commercial driving schools. Under the agreement:
• Probst’s driving instructor license is revoked for five years, with no opportunity to reapply.
• Probst’s school ownership licenses are revoked for 10 years, with no opportunity to reapply.
• Probst’s schools cannot accept new students after Oct. 16.
• Probst’s schools must close no later than Dec. 31.
• Probst must divest himself of all financial interest in driving schools by Feb. 15, 2007, and have no financial interest in any driving school for 10 years.
• Any sales agreements between Probst and partners must be completed and documented by Feb. 15, 2007.
• School ownership licenses for Probst’s daughter, Malia Orbino, are revoked for 10 years, and she must abide by the same financial interest requirements as her father.
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486