Special Reports

Driving-school Web sites give false information

After three months of silence, Washington’s driving-school king has spoken – sort of.

Midland resident Gary Probst, owner of 41 driving schools targeted by the state for suspension and possible shutdown, refused to comment in July when a News Tribune series exposed his shabby business practices.

He didn’t want to talk last week, after the state charged him with lying on license applications.

Tuesday, the first hint of a statement appeared. Three driving-school Web sites created by Probst posted anonymous “informational notes” aimed at parents and students.

Several statements in the notes are false, according to the state Department of Licensing. They wrongly tell parents the schools aren’t facing suspension.

The notes, virtually identical except for the school names, don’t mention Probst directly. They refer to him only as a “former partner” in the schools.

There is no way to tell whether Probst wrote the statements, but records of more than 40 state investigations show he has used the Web sites before to spread information, sometimes under his name, sometimes not.

The sites were created by Probst several years ago, Internet registration records show.

The state’s charges against Probst say he failed to disclose a 1990 military conviction that led to his dismissal from the Army. The notes on the Web sites refer to it as “a disciplinary situation.” They go on to say Probst “had been led to believe that he did not have to disclose” the conviction.

Brad Benfield, DOL spokesman, said the state has no information to confirm the claim.

“We have no knowledge of any advice he received earlier,” Benfield said.

The notes say Probst has relinquished his financial interest in the schools, and add that any state action will affect only Probst’s instructor license, not the school’s operating license.

“Untrue,” said Benfield. “We’re taking action against both Mr. Probst’s driving instructor license and the licenses where he’s listed as an owner or co-owner.”

Probst can request a hearing to fight the charges. So far, he hasn’t. Without a hearing, the state can revoke his license and close the schools.

The notes say there are no allegations of misconduct involving any of the school’s current managers or instructors.

“That’s false,” Benfield said. “The charges apply to the license overall and to all of the owners on the license.”

DOL’s investigations of Probst’s schools, conducted in 2002 and 2003, found examples of felons hired to teach driving, unlicensed instructors, complaints and multiple examples of forgery.

The notes posted on the school Web sites say, “Our curriculum and school records are recognized as exceptional by examiners with DOL.”

Before responding to that statement, Benfield paused for a long time.

“I really don’t have anything to say about that,” he said finally. “I don’t know what his definition of exceptional is.”

School statement: Responses to state charges were posted Tuesday on three Web sites associated with Gary Probst’s schools: diamonddrivingschool.com, americasbestdrivingschool.com and qualitydrivingschool.net.

Our investigation: Read “License to Shill,” the News Tribune report on Probst, at thenewstribune.com/news/projects/license.