CHAMPAIGN — A bus company that drew widespread criticism for an ad appearing to mock Chinese students at the University of Illinois has reached an agreement that will allow it to continue operating — but under close watch from the state's top prosecutor for the next three years.
Champaign-based Suburban Express, which operates shuttles between college campuses and the Chicago area, has finalized an agreement that ends a lawsuit brought by former Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
The consent decree requires the company to make a six-figure payment for customer refunds, implement new anti-discrimination policies and training for employees, and undergo periodic reviews of operations, ads and any complaints filed by customers.
U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood approved the deal on April 9. But Suburban Express — which was previously ordered by Wood to stop retaliating against customers who posted negative reviews — remained defiant. The company posted on Facebook that it "felt it was being extorted by the state," continued to deny claims made in the lawsuit and noted the agreement included no admission of wrongdoing.
News reports in December 2017, including from the Tribune, detailed an emailed ad from the company that boasted, "You won't feel like you're in China when you're on our buses" — an apparent swipe at the sizable population of Chinese students at U. of I. at Urbana-Champaign.
A subsequent statement on the company's Facebook page, titled "Apology," assailed U. of I. leaders for "selling our university to the highest foreign bidder" before stating, "We did not intend to offend half the planet."
Within days of those reports, Madigan launched an inquiry into whether the company violated the Illinois Human Rights Act. That probe revealed "rampant and equally egregious examples of ... illegal conduct," Madigan said, prompting her to sue the company in Chicago federal court in April 2018.
The lawsuit claimed that Suburban Express encouraged employees not to serve students who weren't native English speakers and that company owner Dennis Toeppen posted a video that mocked U. of I. Asian students and banned customers with billing addresses in Chicago suburbs where there are sizable Jewish populations.
In one email, Madigan said, Toeppen called a customer "a pushy little Chinese international student with a fragile ego" who "should go back to your country and stay there," according to the lawsuit.
In another email he wrote, "Bone up on your English a little so you don't have more problems like this in my country," the suit states.
Kwame Raoul, who took over as Illinois attorney general this year, released a statement saying the new consent decree "brings an end to Mr. Toeppen's reprehensible business practices and ensures that students receive fair and equal access to Suburban Express' services."
"For too long, students traveling from university campuses to their homes have done so under the fear of being subjected to discrimination and harassment by Suburban Express and its owner," Raoul said.
Toeppen could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A statement on the company's Facebook page continued to dispute the claims of the lawsuit and said the terms of the consent decree imposed "some minor requirements" on the company.
"Madigan's lawsuit contained numerous false, unproven, unproveable (sic) and legally inconsequential allegations," the statement said. "Suburban Express felt that it was being extorted by the state, but chose a $100k payment to state rather than spending $250k-$500k defeating the lawsuit."
The payment, due to the attorney general's office by Oct. 9, will be put into a trust to provide refunds to customers.
By the end of this month, the company must establish a way for customers to submit claims online for refunds of up to $20. Anyone who bought a Suburban Express ticket between April 23, 2014, and April 9, 2018, and has not received a refund may be eligible. Claims are also due Oct. 9.
And the company is prohibited from retaliation against customers who seek refunds, including publicly identifying them or "otherwise engaging in public commentary" about them.
The agreement also requires Toeppen and his employees to attend annual anti-discrimination training in programs approved by the attorney general. The company must also prominently display a new anti-discrimination statement on its website, promotions, order confirmations and other company materials.
"All persons are welcome to ride on our vehicles," the statement will read, according to court documents. "We do not discriminate, offer different services, or deny services on the basis of any individual's race, color, sex, gender, identity, age, religion, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, marital status, parental status, military status, or source of income. You are welcome here."
Suburban Express must also retain copies of all customer complaints, contracts and advertisements. The company must provide those documents to the attorney general every six months for review.
The consequences for not complying with the terms of the agreement are potentially severe. The attorney general could ask the court to force the company to pay penalties and restitution or even halt business.
But Suburban Express' statement also asserted that Raoul's office mischaracterized the agreement and said it's considering its own legal action against Raoul and a top deputy.
"Attorney General Kwame Raoul's press release on the matter is false and defamatory in the extreme, in that it claims his office proved the various false and unproven allegations," the statement said.
The resolution of the lawsuit marks only the latest in a series of controversies for the company, which was established in 1983.
It has long drawn rebuke for its "Page of Shame," which posts names and personal information of customers accused of skipping out on fares. The company also became well-known for publicly firing back at dissatisfied customers.
As part of the federal lawsuit, Judge Wood ordered the company in April 2018 to stop publishing customers' personal information and to stop retaliating and refusing business from people who posted negative reviews. As of Tuesday, the Page of Shame was still posted on Suburban Express' website, including names and contact information for past customers.
The Tribune also reported in 2013 how the company filed small claims lawsuits in Ford County — about a half-hour drive from Champaign — against dozens of students, seeking to collect fines for so-called violations like boarding the wrong bus, using tickets on the wrong date or seeking refunds for unused tickets. The company later reversed course and dropped all its suits in Ford County.