License to shill: State didn't go after boss of driving schools

Staff writerJanuary 7, 2013 

Editor's note: This story was originally published on July 19, 2005.

The state of Washington spent almost two years building a case against Gary Probst, Washington's driving-school king - and sat on it.

Meanwhile, thousands of teens around the state continued to receive questionable training at his schools.

The state never disciplined Probst, though key investigative records revealed his efforts to circumvent state law: Use of unlicensed instructors, falsified school records, unlawfully concealed ownership agreements and sworn affidavits from former employees and others who say Probst and his associates falsely used their names and identities.

The attorney general's office says the records are now in the agency's hands.

State attorneys said they hadn't seen the documents until last week, when The News Tribune showed them portions of a lengthy investigation of Probst by the state Department of Licensing, completed in January 2004.

Attorneys were "pretty disappointed with DOL" for not passing along the investigative file, said Greg Lane, communications director for the attorney general's office.

He wouldn't say whether the investigation might have led to sanctions against Probst.

"It would have prompted discussions, " Lane added.

Gov. Christine Gregoire, the state's chief executive and former attorney general, refused to step into the public fray between the two agencies. A spokesman for Gregoire's office referred all questions about the Probst investigation to DOL.

Following recent inquiries and the investigation by The News Tribune, the state is proposing tougher laws and re-examining its investigation of Probst, a Midland resident who owns or is linked to more than 40 of the state's 213 driving schools. More reforms might follow.

"We're not done yet, " said Sharon Whitehead, deputy director of DOL, who stepped into the position two weeks ago.

But for the past three years, state officials tripped over legal and bureaucratic barriers as more than 25,000 teens attended Probst's schools.

The News Tribune's series, "License to Shill, " showed hundreds of driving-school students received shabby 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: Diamond Driving School, America's Best Driving School and Quality Driving School.

The bulk of the information came from records of 42 state investigations of Probst's franchises, conducted by DOL between 2002 and 2004.

In the last three years, the investigations prompted 23 suspensions of driving instructors and school owners and temporary shutdowns of six schools - two additional actions are pending, DOL officials say. Probst's partners and associates were disciplined, though he was not.

The key file, by far the most comprehensive of the state's 42 investigations, centered on Probst's base of operations in Lakewood. It alleges he committed business fraud and allowed instructors to teach without licenses, among other offenses.

The News Tribune obtained the file from DOL through a public records request earlier this year. Collected in spiral binders, it fills three file boxes. It recounts numerous contacts with Probst, and describes a state investigator's interviews with more than 300 people.

The file languished after its completion in 2004 because Probst had allowed his own school license to expire. Officials saw no point in sanctioning him. Officially, Probst had no schools to shut down and DOL officials shifted their attention to other Probst-linked schools that were still open.

Unofficially, Probst was building an empire that eventually reached more than 40 schools - but because of hidden ownership agreements, his name never appeared on licenses.

The file provided the only example of what DOL leaders all along said they needed to move against Probst - his own actions while his school license was active.

"I don't know whether to call it an oversight, " said Brad Benfield, DOL spokesman. "But we are looking at it now."

HIDDEN OWNERSHIP AGREEMENTS

During interviews with The News Tribune over the past few months, DOL leaders and state attorneys suggested that Probst evaded suspensions by maneuvering through a gap in state law and hiding his ownership of schools.

Probst rarely used his own name on licenses. His employees and associates were the licensees and thus the only legal targets for sanctions under current law, according to DOL officials.

The attorney general's office also said DOL never asked them to consider sanctioning Probst, and never provided documents showing he was a direct target of investigation. They admit his name came up in the background of other investigations, but not as the focus for investigators.

"Gary Probst just was never listed, " said Linda Moran, senior assistant attorney general.

While Probst wasn't listed as a direct target in other investigations, he was named repeatedly in other DOL records provided to the attorney general.

His hidden ownership agreements provided the basis for suspensions of other instructors and school managers. DOL investigators found evidence of 18 such agreements. All named Probst as the controlling force of the schools, but he was never disciplined by the state.

TARNISHED MILITARY RECORD

State attorneys also said too much time has passed to sanction Probst for a 10-year-old lie: When Probst first applied to become a driving instructor in 1995, he didn't disclose a 1990 military conviction.

While a chaplain at Fort Lewis, Probst wore medals he didn't earn and falsely claimed a record of bravery in military combat. He was convicted of violating 10 counts of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and dishonorably discharged.

Probst didn't reveal the conviction on his driving-instructor application, though he was required to do so. State attorneys admit the undisclosed conviction could have provided grounds for a license suspension at the time, had state officials been aware of it. But they weren't - and attorneys say the 10-year statute of limitations has passed.

Leaders of both agencies add that a 2002 shift in state regulations created additional headaches. That year, the Legislature gave DOL full authority over commercial driving schools. Previously, DOL and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction shared the load.

When the law changed, OSPI officials gave DOL investigative records related to Probst's schools - inspection records, correspondence and concerns about possible fraud and forgery. With only two employees assigned to commercial driving schools, the agency was instantly swamped.

"Everyone would agree that there were some new lessons learned, " Moran said. "There were and are a lot of things that could have been done differently and will be done differently."

'NOTHING HAPPENS' TO PROBST

For people wounded and duped by Probst, the state's explanations give cold comfort.

"The DOL is continuing to let him run amok, " said Steve Kulin, a Vancouver, Wash., resident and ex-partner of Probst who cooperated with DOL investigators, received a six-month suspension of his school license and endured a smear campaign from his old boss.

"Those of us who have assisted the DOL, we're the ones who have gotten the suspensions, we're the ones who have gotten our names run through the trash, " Kulin said. "And nothing happens to Mr. Probst."

Clyde Ogden, a Midland resident and former school employee who complained to the state repeatedly about Probst's actions, is baffled and disappointed. He provided the state with multiple examples of documents from Probst schools - documents on which Ogden says his name was used fraudulently, and on which his signature was forged.

"I've really lost faith in our attorney general's office and our legal system, " he said. "They know this - why won't they act on him? Why won't they call him to account? He's a pretty big fish in driver education in this state.

"The state is turning a blind eye and a deaf ear. I'm not talking about the investigators - I'm talking about the decision-makers."

Does cracking down on Probst matter? Robert Hall, a former Diamond partner who fought off a lawsuit by Probst, thinks so. In a 2003 letter to the attorney general's office, he deplored what he saw as the state's indifference.

"Mr. Probst teaches every driving school owner how to ignore the commercial driving school laws, " he wrote. "When you bring the improper practices and the blatant ignorance of the commercial driving school laws together, they bring the traffic safety industry to the lowest level possible."

STATE SAYS ACTION WAS TAKEN

Leaders of DOL and the attorney general's office say those complaints are unfair.

"The record doesn't show that we ignored the problem, " said Benfield, the DOL spokesman.

"We were very assertive, " Moran added. "We got good results."

By results, agency leaders mean they suspended 23 instructors and school managers who taught without licenses or concealed Probst's school ownership, and shut down six schools temporarily.

They also confirmed they forwarded complaints about Probst to other agencies, including the state Department of Revenue, the state Department of Employment Security, the state Department of Labor and Industries and the Internal Revenue Service.

L&I spokesman Robert Nelson confirmed Probst remains a target of agency inquiry. Nelson said the agency is concerned about Probst distributing school ownership among family members. Representatives from the other agencies would not comment, citing policies that prohibit them from discussing investigations.

DOL says it is now requiring Probst to disclose his financial interest in driving schools. State records show him listed as the owner or co-owner of 31 schools throughout the state. Family members and associates of Probst own 15 other schools that use his franchise names.

DOL leaders also have drafted proposed state regulations designed to prevent deception. They would allow a one-year suspension of a school license for "falsification, fraud or deceit" connected to licenses and applications. The proposed rules, under consideration for two years, are scheduled for adoption later this month.

"In a perfect world, I think everyone would have things faster and better, " said Moran, the state attorney.

'ALL ABOUT SAFETY'

Liz Luce, director of DOL, took over the agency less than four months ago, long after the investigations of Probst's schools were conducted. After learning of The News Tribune's inquiries and hearing the history of the case, she asked state Rep. Deb Wallace (D-Vancouver) to sponsor legislation that would stiffen regulation of driving schools.

"Any time you come into an agency you have fresh eyes, " she said. "It just seemed to me there were definitely tools that were missing. It seemed to me that it would only be right that we would go to the Legislature and see if we can't get some rules changed or added. "This is all about safety, in my mind, all about kids."

Probst's critics say that's not good enough. They point to the false use of their names and reputations, and wonder why it isn't a crime.

Whitehead, DOL's deputy director, hinted at possible referrals to other state and local agencies, and said that DOL is now looking at "any possible jurisdictional issues for any city, county, or state-level authority.

Again, she said, "We're not done yet."

Sean Robinson 597-8486
sean.robinson@thenewstribune.com

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