CHAMPAIGN — Local bus company Suburban Express shut down all operations Tuesday, according to a court filing from owner Dennis Toeppen posted late in the day.
Suburban Express' website was unreachable Tuesday afternoon except for a refund submission form, as required by the consent decree Toeppen reached last month with the Illinois Attorney General's Office.
Toeppen is also shutting down his other transportation companies, Allerton Charter Coach and Illini Shuttle.
The sudden closings follow a lawsuit filed in April 2018 by then-Attorney General Lisa Madigan that alleged Suburban Express discriminated against and harassed its customers.
While a consent decree was reached last month, the office of new Attorney General Kwame Raoul had accused Toeppen of violating it shortly thereafter.
According to Toeppen's filing, Suburban Express will wind down its accounting over the next four to eight weeks and then be dissolved, "hopefully no later than July 31," Toeppen wrote.
He claimed shutting down his companies should "render most of the consent decree moot," though he also said the $100,000 payment he's required to make to the attorney general as part of the consent decree will be made around May 15.
The AG's office is reviewing how the closures will affect enforcement of the consent decree, spokeswoman Annie Thompson said in a statement.
"Although Mr. Toeppen has informed the court that Suburban Express has ceased operations, the defendants are still obligated to comply with the consent decree," she wrote. "Our office is currently reviewing Mr. Toeppen's filing to determine its impact on the consent decree and Suburban Express customers."
In his filing, Toeppen didn't shy away from taking a parting shot at his competition.
"We have decided not to facilitate or aid in replacement of Champaign-Urbana service," he wrote. "Instead, we prefer to sit on the sidelines and watch as competitor's fares rise, frequency falls, and passenger injuries and fatalities increase."
The company's phone number also redirects customers to Amtrak's customer-service line.
Suburban Express' main bus competitor for trips between the Chicago suburbs and Champaign-Urbana, Peoria Charter, commented on the online forum Reddit that it has "been waiting and preparing for this to occur."
"We look forward to seeing the communities (sic) perception of bus transportation in the area shift towards professionalism and customer service," the post said. "We stand here ready to continue improving our service and provide the students and staff of the University of Illinois and the people of Urbana Champaign with safe, reliable, and friendly travel."
Peoria Charter also said it has "no plans to raise the price as a result of Suburban Express closing their doors. We also have no plans to reduce any routes or lessen our frequency."
Toeppen, 54, founded Suburban Express in 1983. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but he said in the filing that he's shutting down because "I stopped enjoying this business around 2001, and I think it's beginning to show."
Toeppen's latest troubles began in December 2017, when he sent an email advertisement 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.
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."
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.
Then last month, Suburban Express reached a consent decree with the attorney general's office, subjecting the company to the $100,000 fine and three years of scrutiny.
It also had to post an anti-discrimination notice on its website, keep copies of any complaints it receives and not retaliate against anyone seeking a refund.
A week after this agreement was reached, the attorney general's office, now led by Kwame Raoul, accused Toeppen of violating it, alleging he re-uploaded web pages attacking customers and failed to post the anti-discrimination notice everywhere he was supposed to.
Raoul initially sought an additional $10,000 fine against Suburban Express. After Toeppen made some changes, Raoul sought another $10,000 fine because Toeppen told a reporter at Chicago's WTTW-TV that the lawsuit "had a great deal of MSG sprinkled on it," referring to an ingredient commonly used in Asian food.
Toeppen said the remark wasn't meant to be racist, and the judge in this case has yet to rule on the request for additional fines.
Before the lawsuit from the Raoul's office, Toeppen and his bus company had long been criticized.
Its "Page of Shame" listed customers who had allegedly violated the company's policies, including their phone numbers, home addresses and email addresses.
And in 2013, Toeppen sued 126 students in small-claims court in Ford County for violating the company's "terms and conditions," such as printing out and sharing multiple copies of their online tickets, using tickets on the wrong date or altering the dates on printed copies. After a backlash from UI students, many of the claims were dropped, and others were re-filed in Champaign County, where students would have better access and representation by Student Legal Services on campus.