Special Reports

State considers stronger laws for driving schools

A state review of investigations involving Midland resident Gary Probst, Washington’s driving school king, is nearing completion, but leaders aren’t ready to reveal the details, or any potential sanctions that may follow.

In August, state attorneys reviewed files related to more than 40 investigations of Probst’s schools conducted by the state Department of Licensing in 2002 and 2003. Attorneys completed portions of the review in early September, and delivered a series of recommendations to the department.

Those recommendations remain confidential. DOL leaders decline to describe them, saying they fall into the category of attorney “work product,” meaning they are exempt from state laws governing public disclosure.

Tuesday, DOL spokesman Brad Benfield gave a prepared statement regarding possible state action: “The (attorney general’s) office did a thorough analysis of several cases and has provided preliminary information to review,” the statement said. “While we are considering what they provided, their work is continuing and we expect to fully understand all of our options soon.”

The statement gave no date, but in an earlier interview, Benfield said a decision regarding the Probst investigation could be announced within two weeks.

In July, a News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” described the growth of Probst’s driving-school empire and his many scuffles with state regulators. State records show Probst, 52, listed as the owner or co-owner of 31 commercial driving schools, and linked by family members and associates to 15 more. His franchises – Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School – represent roughly 20 percent of the state’s 214 schools.

Records of more than 40 state investigations of Probst-linked schools revealed shabby training of students, sometimes conducted by unlicensed instructors.

The investigations, conducted in 2002 and 2003, also exposed examples of possible fraud and forgery, and a series of hidden ownership agreements that gave Probst control of the schools while concealing his financial interest, in violation of state law. As a result, the state sanctioned 23 instructors and school owners, but took no action against Probst.

Following publication of the series, the Department of Licensing announced a series of measures designed to improve oversight of commercial driving schools. The proposed changes include legislation slated for introduction when the next legislative session begins in January.

The new laws would broaden the definition of fraudulent and deceptive practices, give the DOL director greater authority to sanction school owners and instructors, and require all parties with a financial interest in a school to disclose their identities.

The legislation started a long trek through the Legislature last week. The House and Senate transportation committees heard presentations explaining the changes DOL hopes to make. Becky Loomis, DOL’s assistant director for driver services, outlined other steps DOL has taken in the last two months.

“Our goal is to improve the integrity of the program,” she told state senators Monday.

On Aug. 29, modified state rules governing driver training schools took effect, clarifying current law. The DOL recently added a link to its driving-school Web site (www.dol.wa.gov/ds/tse/cdt. htm) that allows parents shopping for driving schools to check their performance in several categories over the past three years.

A link to “driver training school ratings” leads to a spreadsheet showing the name of each school, the number of graduates who received their licenses, and their pass-fail rates on state licensing tests. The information is a slightly modified version of records provided to The News Tribune in response to a public records request earlier this year.

In her presentations to state lawmakers, Loomis said the DOL has revamped the application forms driving school owners and instructors must sign before they can open a school or receive a teaching license.

The old forms did not include a perjury clause, which indicates false statements could be grounds for a charge of perjury. In August, the state sent the new forms to every driving school in the state, and asked owners and instructors to sign them, Loomis said. As of Sept. 15, about half of the forms had been signed and returned.

State Rep. Deb Wallace (D-Vancouver), the prime sponsor of the driving-school legislation, said the proposed laws and other changes at DOL should help parents make informed choices when they select a driving school.

“They just assume they’re all the same, and they’re all of good quality,” she said. “They take it for granted.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486