Special Reports

Driving-school case still rolling forward

According to state officials, the pursuit of driving-school mogul Gary Probst is deceiving – it only looks stalled.

On Oct. 8, the state Department of Licensing charged Probst with breaking state law. The Midland resident owns or co-owns 41 driving schools around the state. He is charged with providing false information on school license applications.

Probst appealed the charge Oct. 25. That means he gets a hearing – eventually. The state hasn’t picked a date but says it probably will be this month.

“The time frame we’re working with is not unusual at all,” said Brad Benfield, licensing department spokesman. “Right now we’re in the process of going through and having pre-hearing conferences – a chance for our attorney to talk with their attorney and talk about scheduling the hearings.”

Benfield noted the assistant attorney general assigned to the case must juggle it with other daily duties. Attorneys for both sides also must coordinate their schedules with an administrative law judge.

So far, the Department of Licensing has held two pre-hearing conferences with a pair of Probst’s co-owners, Benfield said. The conference with Probst has not taken place.

While attorneys shuffle their calendars, teens throughout the state continue to learn their driving skills at Probst’s schools, where state records reveal a history of shabby instruction.

In July, a News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” chronicled Probst’s 10-year battle with state regulators. The stories showed that Probst’s franchises – Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School – have employed unlicensed teachers who never received the certification and training required by the state.

More than 40 investigations by the licensing department found convicted felons teaching in Probst’s schools, instructors hiding behind false names and accusations from parents, students and former employees that Probst and his associates committed forgery and fraud.

Records also show some students in the schools received credit for time behind the wheel they never spent and lessons they never took. Though several of his partners were disciplined after the investigations, Probst was not sanctioned.

Probst declined numerous requests for comment before the original series ran. Friday, he hung up the phone when a News Tribune reporter called. His attorney, Judson Gray, was on vacation and could not be reached.

After reading the series, licensing department leaders proposed new laws to tighten regulations governing driving schools. The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Deb Wallace (D-Vancouver) is expected to appear in the coming legislative session.

The agency subsequently filed administrative charges against Probst and his co-owners.

The charges state that Probst failed to disclose a 1990 military conviction when he applied for his driving-school licenses. Probst, a former military chaplain at Fort Lewis, was found guilty of falsifying his service record, and wearing medals for bravery he never earned. He was discharged from the Army.

Probst and his associates initially argued that he had given up financial interest in the schools. The agency dismissed the argument, saying it had not received required documentation of ownership changed before charges were filed. The department also will not consider ownership changes during the appeal process.

If it takes place, Probst’s appeal will be heard by the state’s Driver Training School Advisory Committee, a five-member body composed of state officials and private citizens. The committee can make a recommendation on the charges, typically followed by an order from the Department of Licensing’s director.

Until the appeal process ends, Probst’s schools can stay open. If the licensing department director sustains the charges, Probst and his partners could face sanctions ranging from temporary suspensions to revocations of their licenses, which would close the schools. Probst could appeal such a decision to Superior Court.

Sean Robinson: 597-8486