Illinois attorney general launches civil rights inquiry into bus company
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s office is investigating a bus company that serves University of Illinois students for potential civil rights violations, the latest fallout in response to the company’s racially tinged weekend ad that disparaged Chinese students and the university’s admissions policies.
Madigan’s office announced Monday it had issued a subpoena for Suburban Express, a bus company based in Champaign that provides shuttle service from various universities to O’Hare International Airport and Chicago-area suburbs.
The office is investigating whether the company’s policies and practices violate the Illinois Human Rights Act, a probe based upon the weekend email promotion that boasted “you won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses,” according to the statement. Madigan is seeking documents, records and other information from the company to evaluate its business operations.
Suburban Express has 30 days to comply with the subpoena, according to a statement from Madigan’s office.
“I am concerned that this advertisement may reflect that Suburban Express is discriminating against potential customers,” Madigan said in the statement. “Under the law, access to transportation must not be impacted or based on a person’s race or national origin. My office is investigating to determine whether Suburban Express’ policies and practices violate the law.”
Madigan’s office also encouraged people to file complaints against the company online or call her office’s Civil Rights Hotline.
The company’s owner, Dennis Toeppen, could not be reached for comment Monday,
The action from the attorney general is the latest in the fierce backlash and fallout for the company.
Earlier Monday, Ald. Ameya Pawar, 47th, said he would file a City Council resolution next week to request that a representative of Suburban Express appear before aldermen to explain the ad as well as a second message that accused U. of I. of “selling our university to the highest foreign bidder.”
“This is not acceptable in any way,” Pawar said, adding, “This is xenophobic, it’s bigoted, it’s racist. It’s not right.”
The alderman said he would also appeal to the city’s Department of Aviation and its Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection to investigate Suburban Express’ business practices. For years, the company has adopted an aggressive stance in criticizing customers it says had violated its policies and toward competing bus companies, which it has disparaged on its website.
Pawar, who sits on the council’s joint committee for aviation and budget and government operations, said the city could exercise some regulatory authority over the company because it provides shuttle service to O’Hare.
Pawar said he wanted the company to “come talk to the City Council about their stance on diversity, how they could have allowed a statement like this to go out knowing that they serve a large number of travelers of various backgrounds, and why they think that we, as city government, should allow them to continue operating out of the airport given their ugly stances.” Toeppen would not be required to attend.
The City Council next convenes Dec. 13.
Later Monday, the company posted another statement on Facebook saying it had reached out to Pawar about the issue. The alderman confirmed someone contacted his office, but he said he had not spoken to anyone from the company as of Monday afternoon.
“We screwed up and we know it,” the statement read. “Our apology was inadequate. We hope to open a dialogue with Alderman Pawar about our shortcomings and how to make our services more inclusive in the future.”
Lilia Chacon, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Business Affairs and Consumer Protection Department, said Suburban Express is licensed by the state, not the city.
“In Chicago this kind of language in marketing would not be tolerated,” Chacon said in a statement. “Because their service is a one-way transport, typically to O’Hare or suburban malls, they do not require a city license. However, because of concerns about the company’s offensive marketing strategy we are referring this company for review by the Chicago Commission on Human Relations.”
The Saturday ad sent via email publicized shuttle services from Urbana-Champaign to various Chicago suburbs throughout the university’s holiday break. Amid the list of perks being offered by the company’s services the ad stated:
“Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.”
A second email later that day, titled “Apology,” dismissed those who characterized the ad as being racist. The message then shifted to pointedly criticize U. of I.’s admission policies, incorrectly stating that Chinese-born students make up 20 percent of the student body, that the university’s primary motive in enrolling international students was money and that that number of “nonnative English speakers places a variety of burdens on domestic students.”
There are 5,868 Chinese students enrolled at Urbana-Champaign this fall — 12 percent of the population, according to university data.
The messages quickly spurred angry responses from university officials and student groups.
“We cannot prevent a private company from operating in our community,” part of the statement from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs read. “But we can, loudly and unambiguously, say that the opinions expressed by Suburban Express are offensive, bigoted, insulting and in direct opposition to the values of this university.”