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DOL shuts down Kirkland Coast to Coast driving school following investigation

Sotiris Calagiu, owner of Coast to Coast driving school in Kirkland, sits at his office desk. The Department of Licensing recently shut down his Totem Lake business after an investigation found that he allegedly violated several state laws.  - Raechel Dawson, Kirkland Reporter
Sotiris Calagiu, owner of Coast to Coast driving school in Kirkland, sits at his office desk. The Department of Licensing recently shut down his Totem Lake business after an investigation found that he allegedly violated several state laws.
— image credit: Raechel Dawson, Kirkland Reporter

Washington State Department of Licensing officials recently shut down a Totem Lake driving school after completing an investigation that alleges the owner violated several state laws.

Coast to Coast driving school, located at 12305 120th Ave. NE in Kirkland, was opened in 2010 by owner Sotiris Calagiu but his operation ceased on Oct. 15 and customers were notified the following day to go elsewhere. The DOL also shuttered the school's other location in Seattle at 7101 MLK Jr. Way South.

The DOL alleges Calagiu violated at least 18 Washington Administrative Codes (WAC) and Revised Codes of Washington (RCW) laws. The charges ranged from hiring a felon to making racist remarks in front of customers.

But Calagiu denies the majority of the allegations and insists Coast to Coast’s mission is to provide students with driving skills so they can be the safest on the road.

“I am a professional and I care for the students, for the customer,” Calagiu said. “And I strive to do my best at all times.”

DOL spokeswoman Christine Anthony said the investigation started last June during the annual audit, when the auditor found some irregularities in the records.

“Once we started digging, a whole bunch of allegations came out by the employees and complaints from the students,” Anthony said. “It took us several months [to conduct the investigation].”

One of the biggest violations the DOL discovered was that Calagiu had hired an unlicensed convicted felon as a driving instructor.

Danielle Faafiti was denied her instructor’s license after a background check showed she was convicted around 2008 of three counts of forgery. However, she was able to go through the hours of training it takes to become an instructor.

According to Calagiu, Faafiti lied to him that the crime was something small that happened in 2001.

“I made the mistake of getting her hired,” Calagiu said. “ … I shouldn’t have but I got strapped by the situation and I needed people to work because business was going fast.”

After DOL officials caught Faafiti in the act proceeding to instruct a student on a drive Aug. 20, Coast to Coast could no longer give students the knowledge or driving test.

“[It was] very stressful,” Calagiu said. “We have hundreds of customers, not just one or two or 10, 20. We have hundreds - both teenage students and adults.”

Calagiu met with the DOL on Sept. 5 to admit his mistake in hiring Faafiti and asked for clemency. He said he was told they would investigate further and get back to him in about a month.

But Calagiu was served with several other charges that resulted in a “summary suspension” of his license to practice as a driver training school owner and a driver training instructor, pending further hearing.

“The summary suspension is not used very often,” Anthony said. “It’s only used in cases where it’s a matter of public safety.”

As for the racist remarks, Calagiu, who is a Greek immigrant from Romania, said he’s only told students that the driving laws are different in other countries.

“I know how we drive in New York, I know how people drive in Russia, in Romania and Italy and Germany - everywhere,” he said. “There’s different driving styles. What’s so racist about it?”

Several other charges allege Calagiu gave driving training course certificates to students who did not complete the course, that he entered passing scores for applicants who failed their DOL skills test and that he instructed a former employee to falsify a student record. But Calagiu vehemently asserts these are “Not true. Period.”

At least four customers and one former employee wrote testimonies on behalf of Calagiu and Coast to Coast.

“I was totally shocked to see the procedure against his business and the final letter that shut down his business,” said Elizabeth Jakab in a letter. “I cannot speak to the verity of each individual accusation, but I call them accusations because the majority appear not to be factual.”

Jakab further states she does not believe Calagiu got due process when the DOL shut down his business and that she hopes he will get a second chance.

Hussein Elhaj, a former employee, said Calagiu sets the bar high for “effort, oversight and compliance.”

“His interests have always been the establishment of a top tier, professional driving school whose main purpose and objective is to ensure students leave the school knowledgeable and are dedicated to safe driving,” Elhaj said in his letter. “This interest was above all else, even if it meant a non-sugar coated, straightforward assessment of a student’s performance.”

JonErik Johnson, whose son is a Coast to Coast graduate and daughter was enrolled, wrote a passionate letter to the DOL expressing his dissatisfaction of the department’s actions against Coast to Coast.

“I have spent more time in the Coast to Coast classroom and in the business than any accuser or intellectually challenged state employee,” Johnson wrote. “I know many students, many parents too. I am an advocate for children in Kirkland and you are so far off ‘the mark,’ I find it shocking. I am alarmed by your behavior and I hope you have the sense to reconsider your actions.”

Calagiu said he has since hired a lawyer and will soon make an appeal.

Any further hearings will likely go before an administrative law judge, who will look at the evidence from both the state and Calagiu and then make a decision, said Anthony.

“We really hate taking this kind of action,” Anthony said. “We know it’s disruptive to the students, the employees, the business and the community but we felt like we had no choice. It’s really a matter of public safety.”

The DOL said previous customers of Coast to Coast should make arrangements to attend the Defensive Driving School, SWERVE or 911 Driving School in Bellevue. For questions or concerns about completing the traffic safety course, contact tse@dol.wa.gov or call (360) 664-6692.

 

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