Special Reports

State tries again to slow drive-school mogul with laws, scrutiny

State leaders are chasing Midland resident Gary Probst, Washington’s driving-school king, but they haven’t closed in on him.

High-ranking Department of Licensing officials and state attorneys have re-opened an overlooked investigation into Probst’s schools. Two attorneys are combing through investigative records, and DOL officials met Friday to discuss the progress of the case.

“It didn’t originally receive the scrutiny that it should have received,” said Brad Benfield, DOL spokesman.

Benfield added that department director Liz Luce has asked state attorneys “to present to us all enforcement actions that we could take, be it administrative or things that we would have to refer to other law enforcement agencies. In a way, both things are happening.”

A recent News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” chronicled the rise of Probst’s driving-school empire, and described his battles with state regulators. Records of more than 40 state investigations of Probst-linked schools revealed shabby training of students, sometimes conducted by unlicensed instructors.

Probst declined repeated requests for interviews before the series was published. Friday, he did not respond to a phone message.

Benfield said DOL officials are waiting to hear the analysis by state attorneys, which isn’t finished. He couldn’t say how long that will take.

“We’re evaluating it,” said Linda Moran, senior assistant attorney general. “Reviewing it and evaluating it. We’re working to provide the department with some option-based legal advice about what it may be able to do.”

State records show Probst, 52, is listed as the owner or co-owner of 31 commercial driving schools, and linked by family members and associates to 15 more.

Probst’s franchises – Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School – represent more than 20 percent of the state’s 213 commercial schools. In the last four years, almost 25,000 teens have passed through the schools, state records show.

The state’s 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.

State leaders say the lack of action stemmed from an oversight: A key investigative file completed in January 2004 was never delivered to state attorneys. It languished for more than year, until The News Tribune obtained it through a public records request and showed it to state attorneys.

The revelation of the overlooked file prompted soul-searching at both agencies. While attorneys say they didn’t see it, and didn’t know Probst was a direct target of investigation, other records provided by the DOL to the attorney general’s office show Probst was mentioned repeatedly as the architect of hidden ownership agreements that led to sanctions against his associates.

Should state attorneys have connected the dots and acted more aggressively?

Moran said the attorneys she supervises faced numerous duties in addition to their work for the Department of Licensing, and received the information about the driving school investigations in piecemeal fashion.

“During this time frame, there were so many other really pressing things going on,” she said.

In response to The News Tribune series, department leaders and Moran have discussed how both agencies can improve internal communications and oversight of investigations.

Documents obtained by The News Tribune show Moran met with DOL leaders earlier this month and outlined a series of “Lessons Learned” from the Probst case.

“I think the department was wanting to learn from what was done wrong here and what was done right,” Moran said.

Added Benfield: “It was a discussion that people from all areas of the agency were a part of, basically a discussion on exactly what we can do in the future to really raise the level of investigation across the whole agency.”

While state officials fret, Probst’s schools continue to draw customers, sometimes using misleading endorsements.

A brochure available at America’s Best Driving School in downtown Tacoma, co-owned by Probst, includes a section headed, “Here is what others say about America’s Best Driving School.” The “others” are Probst and one of his sons.

A short paragraph in the brochure describes the school as “one of the best programs of drive education that is offered in this state.” The endorsement comes from the Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation, an organization created by Probst in 2003. The brochure does not mention his connection to the group. Records from the Secretary of State show he is the president, and the group’s address is his base of operations in Lakewood.

A second endorsement in the brochure comes from one of Gary Probst’s two sons, Cameron Probst. The brochure does not mention the family connection.

The endorsement, presented as a quote, mentions that Cameron Probst is a Seattle police officer. Seattle Police Department rules prohibit officers from endorsing private businesses, a department spokeswoman said.

Benfield, the Department of Licensing spokesman, said current state laws allow the agency to sanction deceptive advertising from certain businesses, such as car dealerships. However, the regulations don’t cover driving schools.

That could change next year if state lawmakers adopt new laws proposed by the Department of Licensing in the wake of The News Tribune series. Among other provisions, the legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Deb Wallace (D-Vancouver) would place driving schools in the same category as other businesses and professions regulated by the DOL.

Additional state records obtained by The News Tribune after publication of the series show that Probst and his associates recently sought a $14,960 state grant to provide driver training in high schools throughout Pierce and King counties.

The Probst-led Northwest Traffic Safety Foundation submitted the grant application in May to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, a state agency that collects traffic and accident data, and sponsors traffic safety programs.

The commission rejected the Probst grant application earlier this month. The money would have funded high school assemblies featuring demonstrations of the “skid monster,” a device that simulates a car sliding out of control. Several Probst schools promote skid-monster training as part of their curriculum.

Fred Mottola, the Connecticut driver-education guru who invented the skid monster, said he sold one of the devices to Probst’s Diamond Driving School franchise in December 2001.

“They did have training take place for three instructors,” Mottola said, responding to questions via e-mail. “However, as part of the training process the instructor candidates are required to submit a video tape demonstrating their teaching of the Skid Monster Driving System in order to receive certification from us. Those videos were never submitted, so they have not received our endorsement.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486