Attorney general: Toeppen, Suburban Express already violated consent decree

 

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CHAMPAIGN — Suburban Express and owner Dennis Toeppen have allegedly violated a consent decree reached last week with the Illinois attorney general.

According to a motion filed Wednesday morning by the AG seeking a $10,000 fine, Suburban Express posted defamatory webpages of customers and failed to post a nondiscrimination statement everywhere it was required to.

Toeppen has also brought back his notorious "Page of Shame," which includes phone numbers, email addresses and home addresses of customers he says had dishonored payments, were "fare cheaters" or have been banned from Suburban Express.

"The Consent Decree requires Defendants 'not to penalize customers based solely on online comments about any Defendant, including reviews,'" Assistant Attorney General Jeff VanDam wrote. "Defendants flouted this requirement immediately after entry of the Consent Decree by posting a defamatory web page that penalizes a customer through viciously attacking the customer solely for online comments about Suburban Express."

The web page includes screenshots of that customer's Yelp reviews of Suburban Express, links to the Google Maps page for what Toeppen says is her childhood home and links to her LinkedIn page. It also criticizes her mental health.

The attorney general's office also claims Toeppen violated the consent decree's provision that he not make anyone feel unwelcome because of their race, national origin or religion.

He allegedly posted another web page attacking a student of Asian origin.

"Defendants state on this web page that the individual under attack 'reminds us' of Suey Park, a prominent Asian-American activist who advocates against discrimination against Asian-Americans, and that the reader should 'Google' Suey Park 'for a good laugh,'" VanDam wrote. "Taken individually or together with the other page Defendants have posted attacking a person of Asian origin, Defendants have circulated communications that Defendants know are to the effect that the individuals under attack are objectionable and unacceptable because of their race and national origin."

After this article was published, the reference to Suey Park was removed, though the web page is still up.

The AG's office said Suburban Express has also failed to post the full anti-discrimination statement on all the parts of its website, as required under the consent decree.

"At the time of this filing, Defendants have either not placed or not placed the entirety of this required language on the main page of any of their websites or on the web page displaying the terms and conditions of ticket purchases," VanDam said. "This is true despite that Defendants have taken the time to post, on at least one of those same websites, a statement about the Consent Decree and subsequent events."

Toeppen has requested News-Gazette Media not contact him about stories, but on his website, he criticized the AG's press release about the consent decree.

"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 says.

Toeppen also said Suburban Express chose to settle because it felt extorted by then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

"Madigan's lawsuit contained numerous false, unproven, unproveable and legally inconsequential allegations. 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 statement says. "The consent decree does impose some minor requirements on Suburban Express, and it does recite statutes which apply to all businesses in Illinois. It does not contain any admission of wrongdoing, finding of wrongoing (sic), or anything of the sort."

With its motion Wednesday, the attorney general's office is asking the court to impose a $10,000 fine, to order Toeppen to remove the offending web pages within 24 hours and to add the non-discrimination language within 24 hours.

A hearing is scheduled for next week.

Toeppen told the attorney general's office he'd add the non-discrimination statement by next week's hearing, according to the motion, but disagreed with the other alleged violations.

"The State also brought each of the remaining Consent Decree violations raised in this motion to the Defendants' attention," VanDam wrote. "The Defendants denied that the conduct in question violates the Consent Decree and refused to take remedial action."

The motion comes a week and a day after the three-year consent decree was reached.

The decree requires Toeppen and Suburban Express to pay $100,000 to the AG's office. That money will be used to offer refunds to Suburban Express customers who've ridden the buses since April 23, 2014.

Eligible customers will be able to seek a refund of up to $20 by filling out a form on the Suburban Express website beginning April 30, according to the consent decree.

The consent decree also prohibited Toeppen and Suburban Express from discriminating or harassing its customers, or from retaliating against customers who seek a refund.

To try to ensure compliance, Toeppen and his employees will have to take an anti-discrimination class each year and keep copies of all complaints and advertisements for review by the AG's office every 180 days.

The AG's lawsuit stemmed from an email advertisement Suburban Express sent in December 2017 saying its 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.

Madigan then filed a 39-page lawsuit in April 2018, attaching 182 pages of exhibits filled with screenshots of Yelp comments on negative reviews, Suburban Express' Page of Shame, an internal list of banned customers, emails, copies of the email advertisements and a copy of the contract customers must agree to.

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."

When the lawsuit was filed, Madigan said she wanted to force Suburban Express and Toeppen to either comply with the law or be shut down.

The lawsuit sought $50,000 per deceptive act or unfair practice, an additional $50,000 per deceptive act or unfair practice committed with the intent to defraud, $10,000 for offenses against people older than 65 and up to $10,000 per defendant for each unlawful act of discrimination.

After the lawsuit was filed, Suburban Express and Toeppen agreed to a temporary restraining order requiring the company to remove personally identifying information from its website, stop retaliating against customers for negative reviews and remove language from its contract prohibiting negative reviews.