Special Reports

Driving-school boss charged

Washington’s driving-school king is on the road to being dethroned.

Last week, the state Department of Licensing moved to dismantle the empire created by Midland resident Gary Probst, who has skirted and defied state rules for a decade, leaving a trail of frustrated competitors and embittered ex-partners in his wake.

Formal charges sent Thursday to Probst by certified and regular mail accuse him of violating state laws. Barring an appeal, the charges give the DOL grounds to close 41 schools owned or co-owned by Probst throughout the state.

They include 24 in Pierce and King counties, and 17 more scattered through Snohomish, Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap, Clark, Whatcom, Benton, Yakima and Spokane counties. Probst also faces the loss of his driving instructor license.

In July, The News Tribune chronicled Probst’s driving-school career and his numerous battles with state regulators. His franchises – Diamond Driving School, America’s Best Driving School and Quality Driving School – represent almost 20 percent of the 214 commercial driving schools in Washington, attended annually by thousands of teens seeking driver’s licenses. State records show at least 7,600 teens graduated from Probst’s schools in 2004 alone.

Probst, 52, has 20 days from his receipt of the letters to appeal the charges against him. If he doesn’t request a hearing, the state will suspend or revoke his school licenses, forcing them to close before the end of this month. If he appeals, his schools will remain open until the case is resolved.

Whatever he plans to do, he’s keeping it to himself. Saturday and Sunday, The News Tribune called Probst at his Midland home to ask for a comment. The man who answered hung up the moment a reporter identified himself.

In July, Probst’s response was similar: He rejected repeated offers to comment. The News Tribune series, “License to Shill,” detailed public records showing that the DOL investigated Probst’s schools more than 40 times in 2002 and 2003. The state found hundreds of students received shabby training, sometimes from unlicensed instructors.

Investigators discovered convicted felons teaching in Probst’s schools, instructors hiding behind false names, complaints from parents and students and former employees accusing Probst and his associates of forgery and fraud.

Although several of his associates received license suspensions and revocations, the state didn’t sanction Probst. The News Tribune series revealed that the DOL never delivered a key set of investigative records to the attorney general’s office for review.

Following publication of the series, state attorneys examined the unseen records and reviewed the state’s investigation. Their analysis, completed in September, led to the charges the DOL filed against Probst last week.

The charges, roundly applauded by other school owners, mark the largest single disciplinary action taken by the DOL against driving schools since the agency took administrative control of them in 2002.

They represent one whirl in a regulatory flurry: The DOL recently adopted revised state rules governing driving schools. The agency also is proposing new laws designed to toughen state oversight, sponsored by state Rep. Deb Wallace (D-Vancouver).

“We recently updated all of our state’s driver training school rules, and we’re proposing new legislation to ensure all of our young drivers receive high-quality traffic safety education,” said Liz Luce, DOL director. “We’re also adding the resources required to make sure that anyone who breaks these laws is going to get caught.”

The charges against Probst do not address many issues discovered in prior investigations. Instead, they hinge on one lie: When Probst applied for his teaching and school ownership licenses, he concealed a 1990 conviction that led to his dishonorable discharge from the Army.

Probst was a chaplain at the time, assigned to Fort Lewis. Military investigators discovered that he wore unearned medals, and falsely claimed a record of bravery in combat. He pleaded guilty to violating 10 counts of the code of military justice.

When he applied for his driving-school licenses, the first time in 1995, he was asked whether he had ever been convicted of “any crime involving moral turpitude.” State records show he answered “no” on that and subsequent forms.

The DOL’s charging documents cite the lie as grounds for suspending or revoking his licenses. The charges also note that Probst refused to provide records from his schools when the DOL asked for them during investigations in 2002 – another rule violation.

“After analysis and advice from the AG’s office, we felt that those particular charges were the ones that were strongest and most likely to stand up,” said Brad Benfield, DOL spokesman.

News of the state’s efforts to sanction Probst drew bittersweet cheers from other school owners around the state, who have complained for years about Probst’s methods and tactics, to little or no effect.

“Wowser bowser,” said Donald Munro, owner of 10 schools in the north Puget Sound region. “I think it’s good. I think we needed it. I think it’s past, past due. They should have done it four years ago, five years ago.”

“It is a good thing – if it continues,” said Paul Cook, who owns three schools in Kent, Maple Valley and Enumclaw. Cook has endured public attacks from Probst, posted on the Internet.

“Obviously it’s great if they can shut him down,” said Steve Kulin, a Vancouver, Wash., driving-school owner and former Probst partner who cut ties with the driving-school king in 2003. “I think it’s definitely a step. They are trying to make a difference.”

Graduates of Probst’s schools won’t be affected by the state’s action.

“The certificate from one of those schools is perfectly valid,” said Benfield, the DOL spokesman.

It’s less clear what will happen to current students. If Probst’s schools close before they finish their training, they won’t have the required coursework necessary for a driving-school certificate, which they must have to take the state driver-licensing test. If parents demand refunds, the state can’t force Probst to provide them.

Benfield noted that the potential impact on students was one of the difficult points surrounding the DOL’s decision to file charges. The short history of past state closures of driving schools shows that owners facing sanctions sometimes strike bargains with the state.

Some have agreed to help remaining students finish their coursework as part of a settlement agreement. Whether Probst would accept such an arrangement is unknown.

“We’re so early in the process,” Benfield said. “Everything is kind of wide open right now. We’re not sure exactly what the best action for a parent might be.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486