Special Reports

New law takes aim at tactics used by driving-school overlord

Laws tighten, attorneys haggle, a court flexes and the state Department of Licensing taps an impatient toe.

These are trying times for Midland resident Gary Probst, owner of Washington’s largest commercial driving-school franchises: Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School.

On Friday, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed House Bill 2829, legislation that stiffens state oversight of driving schools. Spurred in part by a 2005 News Tribune series, the new law targets many of the rule-bending tactics Probst used to build his empire.

“I know as of today all our students out there who are taking traffic safety education are going to be able to receive a solid education,” said Liz Luce, director of the Department of Licensing.

As the new law takes effect, Probst grapples with other difficulties. He and several business partners face charges of lying on license applications connected to 41 driving schools.

His son Sean, who hopes to start a new school franchise, is charged with forgery in Clallam County – a conviction that could prevent him from opening new Dynasty Driving Schools. The younger Probst is pleading not guilty.

Meanwhile, Gary Probst and the DOL are trying to reach a possible settlement on the state’s charges. The two sides have been negotiating since the charges were filed last October. DOL officials say time is running short.

“We’re still working with Mr. Probst on a settlement,” said Brad Benfield, DOL spokesman. “We expect to have one within the next 30 days or we’re going to set dates for formal hearings.”

Judson Gray, Probst’s attorney, said the timing described by Benfield was accurate, but he would not comment on details of the negotiations.

Benfield said that while the negotiation process seems slow, it should not concern other driving-school owners who have complained about Probst’s methods and his decade-long dominance of the industry.

“I can understand where the public may be frustrated with how long this is taking,” Benfield said. “But it’s not taking any longer than a typical administrative action that we would take against just about any licensed profession. I would just like everybody to be patient and know that we’re working hard to reach a satisfactory resolution.”

The News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” chronicled Gary Probst’s efforts to build his franchise with a series of hidden ownership agreements that flouted state rules. The series uncovered more than 40 state investigations of Probst’s schools, revealing examples of shabby or incomplete instruction, teachers hiding behind false names and students receiving credit for traffic-safety courses they never completed.

While Probst tangles with the state, his son is trying to start schools in locations leased by his father, using the same classrooms as the other Probst franchises.

In January, Sean Probst filed 40 applications to open Dynasty Driving Schools throughout Washington. In mid-March, he withdrew many of the applications, reducing the number of proposed Dynasty Driving Schools to eight. Benfield said the remaining schools, if approved, would operate in Olympia, Seattle, Mountlake Terrace, Tacoma, Yelm, Bellingham, Mount Vernon and Hazel Dell, a community near Vancouver, Wash.

The DOL has not approved the new applications yet, Benfield added. He said Sean Probst did not provide a reason for withdrawing the earlier applications.

The forgery charges against Sean Probst complicate the licensing process. State law allows DOL to reject school applicants with felony convictions.

Probst hasn’t been convicted, and Benfield said the charges alone won’t affect DOL’s approach to school applications.

The charges stem from a speeding ticket Probst received in Clallam County in 2003. The court ordered Probst to take a defensive driving course. He submitted a certificate as proof of course completion, signed by an instructor who was not registered in the state’s database.

The instructor’s name, John Wilson, appears on various documents linked to the state’s investigation of Gary Probst’s schools. Wilson signed insurance papers and correspondence with state legislators, using addresses linked to Gary Probst. Additional documents show that state attorneys believe the Wilson name might be fictitious.

Gray, who also is representing Sean Probst in the forgery case, said he will push for dismissal of the charges. The case is scheduled for trial June 13.

“We do not believe the state has enough evidence to bring a prima facie case on the charge,” he said.

Gray said prosecutors won’t be able to prove that Sean Probst forged the certificate. Gray added that he has never met John Wilson.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486