Special Reports

Driving-school king outwitted the state

It was no coincidence that the state Department of Licensing picked last Thursday to announce proposed legislation to get tough on commercial driving schools.

The timing had nothing to do with the legislative session, which is still six months off, and everything to do with getting ahead of bad news. As The News Tribune’s readers know by now, reporter Sean Robinson’s investigation of a driving-school mogul shows how one man has taken the state for a ride.

Robinson’s stories, which began Sunday and conclude today, detail how the state has failed to stop Gary Probst from continuing to run driving-school franchises that circumvent state law and turn out drivers ill-prepared to get behind the wheel.

A whopping 42 state investigations of Probst’s businesses have uncovered unlicensed instructors, falsified records, illegal ownership agreements and stolen identities.

Probst’s schools show little concern for quality drivers education. Instructors have shown Cheech and Chong movies in class, taught students how to beat traffic tickets and told students they could park in handicapped spaces if they leave their motors running.

While several of Probst’s associates have paid for their roles in shady business dealings, Probst has gotten off scot-free. Meanwhile, he continues to expand his empire; about one of every eight teen drivers in the state graduated from schools linked to Probst.

Probst has tangled with several state agencies, but none so important as the Department of Licensing, the agency charged with ensuring that a driving-school license means something.

DOL officials now say they need new laws to battle the likes of Probst. That may be, but it appears they made poor use of the avenues already available to them.

A key investigative file that detailed Probst’s alleged fraud never made it to the attorney general’s office where it might have been pursued. Although state attorneys knew of Probst’s involvement in other cases the state had pursued against Probst’s associates, they didn’t get a glimpse of the file targeting Probst himself until The News Tribune showed it to them. They are “pretty disappointed with DOL,” according to spokesman Greg Lane.

Turnover at the Department of Licensing has left many new people holding the bag. The director of DOL, Liz Luce, took the helm earlier this year and is now having to figure out how to fix a broken system. Provided her proposed legislation proves to be more than spin control, she will be on the right track.

But the Department of Licensing, and to some extent the attorney general’s office, should also be ready to acknowledge that they dropped the ball. The fact that Probst has been able to game the system for so long — and that it took a newspaper investigation for officials to call for stronger weapons — is an indictment of the system.

Every person who uses a public roadway in Washington depends on the department to ensure that teen-agers are receiving a solid driver’s education. As long as it’s business as usual for people like Probst, everyone’s safety is at risk.