Suburban Express advertises refund form in provocative email

By Ethan Simmons, Staff Writer

Over the next six months, former Suburban Express customers will cash out on owner Dennis Toeppen’s legal fees. 

The form for customers to submit payment requests closed last week. Anyone who bought Suburban Express tickets since April 23, 2014 could apply for up to $20 of the company’s $100,000 fine.

Toeppen paid the fine as part of a three-year consent decree reached last April between Suburban Express and the state of Illinois, for the company’s “discrimination and harassment of customers and their families,” said the attorney general’s office in a press release

Suburban Express notified former customers of the payment request form in an email sent Oct. 7. 

“You purchased a ticket from Suburban Express in the past,” the email said. “Here is information regarding that purchase, to help you receive ~$20 – sort of a rebate. We’re calling it Beer Money for Suburbanites.”

In the email, Suburban Express called the lawsuit “slimy,” “predatory” and “full of unfounded, inflammatory claims” and labeled Attorneys General Lisa Madigan and Kwame Raou, both from Illinois, as “corrupt, opportunistic Illinois politicians.” 

 Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed the lawsuit against Suburban Express for discrimination in April 2018. The lawsuit stemmed from a December 2017 marketing email by the company, which said its perks included “passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”

Madigan’s 39-page lawsuit attached 182 pages of exhibits, including Suburban Express’ “Page of Shame,” which lists the personal information of banned customers, Yelp comments left by the company on negative reviews and copies of the marketing emails sent by the company. 

Beyond the advertisements, Suburban Express allegedly encouraged employees to avoid giving coupons to students who spoke English poorly and denied credit cards of residents from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations. 

According to the lawsuit, Toeppen also posted a YouTube video of himself in a University dorm mocking Asian accents.  

The recent email includes 2017 statistics of the University’s international enrollment near the end, highlighting the number of students from China, India and Korea. 

“To cover up the fact that University of Illinois has to pander to students from other countries in order to stay afloat, they have decided to call themselves Inclusive Illinois,” Suburban Express said in an email. “We think a more accurate slogan would be Highest Bidder Illinois.” 

The email closes by likening the University’s high international enrollment to dealing cocaine. 

“John DeLorean got his automobile company into a financial crisis,” Suburban Express said. “He tried dealing cocaine to save it. We think University of Illinois should find a way out of their mess that doesn’t involve dealing cocaine.” 

Online reaction

Several customers posted the email’s contents onto Facebook and Reddit pages for University students. 

One of them was David Zucker, a University graduate in Media. 

Zucker said his first interactions with Suburban Express were “difficult.” During his freshman year, his ZIP code on the north shore of Chicago was banned from using the service by Toeppen. 

“It was price discrimination,” Zucker said. “This was the first time I was like, ‘OK, this guy is a little nuts.’”

Once his family moved to Lake Zurich, Zucker was able to purchase tickets during his sophomore year. 

Zucker got the email last Monday and sent in a payment request. Despite Toeppen’s “blatant xenophobia,” Zucker remains “fascinated” by his “never-ending ways of shooting himself in the foot,” he said. 

“I think this is a man who really believes in what he’s saying, and he really believes that (the University) should be a state school, so in a way, you almost have to commend him for his conviction to his cause, but the way that he goes about it is so obviously and laughably wrong. I’m appalled,” Zucker said.

Future proceedings

On Oct. 5, Judge Andrea Wood granted the Illinois AG office an extension to distribute the payments to former customers. The original lawsuit mandated the payments be sent to customers 180 days after Suburban Express paid the fine.  

Toeppen surprised the AG office by paying the $100,000 on May 15, less than a month after the consent decree was made and only eight days after shutting down Suburban Express. 

In August, over 8,600 payment requests had been made by customers. The distribution date has been moved from Nov. 15 to Apr. 3, 2020. 

Due to the extension, Toeppen asked the judge last Monday for $2,080 in “lost investment income,” since he paid the $100,000 early to “obtain the benefit of the matter being wrapped up in 2019,” the filing said. 

Parts of the consent decree are still in effect. Even with Suburban Express shutting down, the AG office said it still exists as a corporate entity and must fulfill certain items in the consent decree.

As required, Suburban Express successfully hosted the webform for payment requests and posted an anti-discrimination notice on its website homepage. Toeppen, employees of Suburban Express and Toeppen’s former transportation company Allerton Charter must participate in yearly anti-discrimination training. 

However, according to the lawsuit, Suburban Express must “implement and maintain reasonable security measures to protect records containing Personal Information.” 

The Page of Shame is still online

Neither owner Dennis Toeppen and the Attorney General’s office were available for comment at the time of publication. 

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