CHAMPAIGN — More than 8,600 people have requested payments from the shuttered bus company Suburban Express as part of its settlement with the Illinois Attorney General’s Office.
The state is making those payments out of a $100,000 fine Suburban Express owner Dennis Toeppen paid, so if all of the requests are approved, each recipient would get about $11.50, less than the maximum $20 allowed under the consent decree.
The number of requests was “far greater than anticipated,” Assistant Attorney General Alison V. Hill wrote in a motion filed Thursday seeking more time to distribute the payments.
According to court filing posted late Tuesday, the bus company will wind down its accounting over the next four to eight weeks and will then be dissolved, 'hopefully no later than July 31,' owner Dennis Toeppen wrote.
Suburban Express shut down in May, a month after the agreement was reached and about a year after it was sued by the state for alleged discrimination and harassment of its customers.
Under the agreement, Toeppen had 180 days to pay the $100,000 fine, at which point the attorney general had another 180 days to distribute the payments.
Because Toeppen paid the fine in May, five months earlier than the attorney general’s office anticipated, Hill said, it now faces a Nov. 15 deadline to distribute the payments.
That’s just 40 days after Oct. 6, the deadline for customers to request them, which is too soon for the office to “evaluate each customer payment request, process approved claims for payment, and then pay the approved requests,” Hill said.
So it’s requesting a new deadline of April 3, 2020.
The attorney general’s office has never said how it is evaluating the payment requests. Anyone who has used the service since April 23, 2014, is eligible to request a payment through a form on the company’s website.
The attorney general’s office plans to present its request for a delay next week before U.S. District Judge Andrea Wood in Chicago.
It did not get Toeppen’s approval for the date change, despite trying, Hill said.
“The Defendants declined to agree, unless the State agreed to waive Defendants’ annual training required by the Consent Decree,” Hill wrote.
Under the consent decree, Suburban Express and Toeppen is subject to three years of monitoring, including taking an anti-discrimination class each year and keeping copies of all complaints and advertisements for review by the attorney general’s office every 180 days.
It was also required to post an anti-discrimination notice on its website and barred from retaliating against anyone seeking a payment.
After the agreement was reached, the attorney general’s office alleged Toeppen violated it and sought an additional $20,000 fine.
That is still pending before Wood and a hearing on the matter keeps getting pushed back. It’s currently scheduled for Oct. 3.
The state’s lawsuit stemmed from an email advertisement Toeppen sent in December 2017 saying Suburban Express’ benefits included “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
That led to a swift backlash, apologies and a subpoena to determine whether Suburban Express had violated the Illinois Human Rights Act.
Then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a 39-page lawsuit in April 2018, attaching 182 pages of exhibits filled with screenshots of Yelp comments on negative reviews, Suburban Express’ notorious “Page of Shame,” emails, copies of the email advertisements, a copy of the contract customers must agree to and an internal list of banned customers.
Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.”
Toeppen has called the allegations “false, unproven, unproveable and legally inconsequential” and said he agreed to the consent degree because he felt like he “was being extorted by the state.”
He said he shut his company down because “I stopped enjoying this business around 2001, and I think it’s beginning to show.”