End of the road for racist bus company

Suburban Express, formerly serving UIUC, shuts down but will comply with $100K settlement

Suburban Express, a shuttle-bus company serving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is shutting down after repeated conflicts with the state attorney general. (Twitter/WTTW)

Suburban Express, a shuttle-bus company serving the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is shutting down after repeated conflicts with the state attorney general. (Twitter/WTTW)

By Ted Cox

A controversial shuttle-bus company that formerly served the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has shut down, but will comply with a government consent decree stemming from racist marketing, shaming customers, and releasing their personal information online.

Suburban Express announced in a federal court filing this week that it was shutting down operations. Owner Dennis Toeppen stated: “I stopped enjoying this business around 2001, and l think it’s beginning to show.”

It actually began to show quite a while ago.

Suburban Express attracted the attention of then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan when it sent an email to customers at the end of 2017 trying to lure “passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

That was felt acutely on the UIUC campus, which has had a successful program recruiting Chinese exchange students over the last decade. Suburban Express specialized in shuttling university students to and from the Chicago area and O’Hare International Airport.

An “apology” the firm offered did little to minimize the damage. It stated: “We must concede that we disagree with the way the University of Illinois is being run. U. of I. is a state school funded by taxpayers and is built on land granted by the people of the state of Illinois. As such, we believe that the mission of the University of Illinois should be providing high-quality, affordable education to the citizens of Illinois.

“U. of I. mismanagement over the last few decades has put them in a financial bind,” it added. “To solve the problem, they admit large numbers of international students who pay higher tuition. Nearly 20 percent of U. of I. students are natives of China, and this high percentage of non-native English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.

“We agree that having a healthy mixture of different cultures and ethnicities is valuable. But we’re not comfortable with the idea of selling our university to the highest foreign bidder.”

The legal scrutiny resulted in Madigan filing suit a year ago against Toeppen and Suburban Express charging that they “discriminated against customers on the basis of race, national origin, and religion; harassed customers with public shame and ridicule; and intentionally compromised customers’ personal information,” according to the Office of the Attorney General.

Attorney General Kwame Raoul, elected last fall and inaugurated in January, forced a consent decree on the firm this year that called for it to make a $100,000 settlement payment. But Raoul almost immediately hit the firm with two additional $10,000 fines for failing to comply with the consent decree, charging in a court filing that Toeppen and his company “flouted” their resistance “by posting a defamatory web page that penalizes a customer through viciously attacking the customer solely for online comments about Suburban Express.”

According to the federal court filing this week, Toeppen intends to make that $100,000 payment next week, while the additional fines are pending in court, but in the meantime it has ceased operations and Toeppen expects to have his bus businesses, including Allerton Charter Coach and Illini Shuttle, fully dissolved by the end of July.

Annie Thompson, spokeswoman for Raoul, issued a statement Wednesday saying: “Although Mr. Toeppen has informed the court that Suburban Express has ceased operations, the defendants are still obligated to comply with the consent decree. Our office is currently reviewing Mr. Toeppen’s filing to determine its impact on the consent decree and Suburban Express customers.”