Special Reports

Charges loom against king of drive schools

After eight months of fencing, the state Department of Licensing is losing patience with Gary Probst, Washington’s driving-school king.

Barring a last-minute settlement, the state will hold a hearing to address administrative charges against Probst, a Midland resident and owner of the state’s largest driving-school franchises: Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School.

If the administrative law judge hearing the case lets the charges stand, the penalties could suspend Probst’s license to teach driving, and close his schools.

The charges, filed in October 2005, accuse Probst and several business partners of providing false information on license applications for 41 schools.

The charges state that Probst, a former Fort Lewis chaplain, did not disclose a 1990 military conviction for lying about his service record and wearing medals for bravery he never earned.

After the state filed charges against Probst and his business partners, back-and-forth settlement negotiations continued all winter.

In mid-April, the department gave up.

“No settlement was agreed upon,” said Brad Benfield, agency spokesman, who added that the state attorney handling the case hopes to schedule a prehearing conference with Probst’s attorney this month.

Judson Gray, attorney for Probst, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Series chronicled history

While the charges remain active, the department will allow no ownership transfers at the 41 schools, Benfield said. Probst and his partners remain officially linked until the case ends.

“They’re still all tied up with the original statements of charges,” Benfield said of the partners.

Probst associates and teachers at his driving schools dominate the department online list of disciplinary actions, viewable at www.dol.wa.gov/ds/tse/tsediscipline.htm.

A July 2005 News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” chronicled Probst’s 10-year battle with state regulators.

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.

Investigators also found a series of hidden ownership agreements that flouted state rules.

The state’s investigations, conducted in 2002 and 2003, led to license suspensions or revocations for Probst’s partners and employees, but Probst faced no sanctions.

The state filed its charges after The News Tribune series was published.

New state legislation

State lawmakers recently adopted legislation designed to tighten the regulations governing commercial driving schools.

The measures, signed into law by Gov. Chris Gregoire, target many of Probst’s rule-bending tactics.

As a result, the Department of Licensing is preparing to hire five new auditor/inspectors who will survey commercial driving schools throughout the state.

A separate effort to open new Probst schools has stalled.

Probst’s son Sean hopes to open the schools under the name Dynasty Driving School.

The younger Probst filed 40 applications in January, listing school sites at many of the same addresses by his father’s franchises.

In mid-March, Sean Probst reduced the number of proposed Dynasty schools to eight. The applications have not been approved, Benfield said.

The Dynasty Web site – www.dynastydriving.com – claims the company is “Washington’s top driver training school,” backed by “over 15 years of expertise,” though the company didn’t exist until late last year, and no Dynasty school has received state approval to open.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486