Special Reports

What’s next for driving schools?

The vassals of Washington’s driving-school king stumbled through fog Monday, dimly aware that their leader, Gary Probst, was in trouble with the state, but unsure what to do about it.

“We didn’t even know about Gary’s situation,” said Lynda Kacho, a Tacoma driving instructor. “He doesn’t really talk to me.”

Kacho teaches at Diamond Driving School of Tacoma, a hole-in-the-wall storefront at 6517 Sixth Ave. It’s one of 41 driver training schools owned or co-owned by Probst, who was charged by the state last week with making false statements on his licensing applications and refusing to provide school records to the state Department of Licensing.

The charges carry the threat of suspension – not just Probst’s teaching license, but his school licenses. Unless he requests a hearing to fight the charges, his schools, scattered throughout the state, could close before the end of the month, leaving students and teachers adrift.

“I really don’t understand,” said Kacho, a single mother. “It’s hard to figure stuff out. I don’t know where I’m gonna be going if these schools shut down.”

Zach Burwell, 17, was one of three students Monday at the Diamond school on Sixth Avenue. He started his classes last week, aiming for a driving-school certificate and cheaper car insurance. He said he knew nothing about the problems with Probst’s schools.

“Not until today when I read the paper,” he said.

In July, a News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” detailed Probst’s decadelong battles with state regulators. The series revealed that the DOL investigated Probst’s schools more than 40 times between 2002 and 2003 and found hundreds of students received shabby training, sometimes from unlicensed instructors.

Investigators discovered felons teaching in the schools, and unlawful ownership agreements that concealed Probst’s control of his franchises – Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School. Between 2001 and June 2005, more than 25,000 Washington teens graduated from a Probst school.

The state’s investigation found hundreds of students graduated without spending the state-mandated four hours behind the wheel, and received credit for classes they skipped. Former employees claimed Probst and his son ordered them to falsify student records.

The state’s charges target one transgression – in his license applications, Probst did not reveal a 1990 conviction that led to his dismissal from the military. An Army chaplain at Fort Lewis, he was convicted of wearing medals for valor he never earned, and falsely claiming a record of bravery in combat.

Probst, a Midland resident, has refused numerous requests for comment since July, when The News Tribune began reporting on his driving schools. One of his business partners, Roy resident Shane Pierucci, was equally reticent Monday.

Along with Probst, Pierucci owns three schools under state scrutiny, meaning he also faces a possible license suspension. State records list him as co-owner of schools in Auburn, Bonney Lake and Enumclaw. In 2004, Pierce County prosecutors charged Pierucci with forgery after learning he had falsified an application to open a driving school in Gig Harbor. Court records show Pierucci pleaded guilty, and admitted his actions in a handwritten statement. He got a dismissal in exchange for agreeing to participate in a deferral program for first-time offenders.

Monday, Pierucci said he didn’t know about the charges against Probst and the 41 schools, sent Thursday from DOL by certified and regular mail to every school location.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I have not heard anything about it.”

Asked whether he planned to appeal the charges, Pierucci bowed out of the conversation.

“I don’t have any idea,” he said. “But I’m not gonna talk to you about it. Have a good day. Bye-bye.”

Department of Licensing director Liz Luce, who took control of the agency in March of this year, said driving schools were a low priority in the past. “When I came and learned about the problems with the driving schools, I felt it needed to be at the top of my list, so I made it a priority for the entire agency,” Luce said.

Other school owners familiar with Probst’s business tactics fear that he will transfer ownership of the schools to a friend or family member to avoid the prospect of shutdowns.

Brad Benfield, DOL spokesman, said the department is taking a tougher approach to such methods: From now on, ownership transfers or changes will require a new licensing application, complete with required fees, inspections and a more thorough review. “Things that have been identified in the past as problems, like hidden ownership agreements, we expect to be caught up front,” he said.

To address the driving-school issue, Luce has assigned a professional auditor to examine school records, and ensure that owners are complying with state rules.

In next year’s state supplemental budget, she hopes to make the position permanent and include funding for legal advice from state attorneys. DOL is also proposing new laws to stiffen driving-school oversight.

“I think it’s important that parents know we really care about their kids out there,” Luce said. “And if anybody thinks they can manipulate driving school rules, they better think again.”

Sean Robinson 597-8486