Accused Oak Forest couple’s spending soared
By Casey Toner firstname.lastname@example.org February 7, 2014 11:54AM
Michelle Sopko / photo from Cook County Sheriff's office
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- Alleged embezzler quits SD 145
- Deputy fire chief to stay on paid leave
- Email overload on Oak Forest couple’s arrests
- Prosecutor details Oak Forest couple’s alleged fraud scheme
- Bond hearing delayed for couple accused of stealing from fire department
Updated: March 10, 2014 6:34AM
A politically connected Oak Forest couple lived extravagantly and incurred heavy credit card debt during the 30 months that they allegedly embezzled $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, police records show.
A review of Charles and Michelle Sopko’s two joint bank accounts showed they spent about $41,700 on clothing, $57,200 on food, $62,600 on entertainment and $186,273 on other bills from 2009 to 2012, Cook County sheriff’s police said. They also incurred significant debt on numerous credit cards, police said.
The couple pleaded not guilty Friday to the several charges against each of them. Their next court date is set for April 3 at the county courthouse in Bridgeview. They are out on bail but under house arrest.
Michelle Sopko, who was a part-time bookkeeper/administrative assistant for four years with the fire district, is charged with felony theft, conducting a financial crimes enterprise, identity theft, official misconduct and forgery. She was fired from her job in December 2012.
Her husband, the deputy fire chief in Oak Forest, faces charges of felony theft, conducting a financial criminal enterprise and forgery.
Authorities say Michelle Sopko manipulated payroll and accounts payable systems to divert the $352,000 in fire district funds to the couple’s bank accounts over a period of 30 months.
On Friday, Circuit Court Judge John Hynes modified conditions of their house arrest, deciding that Michelle can leave her home to go grocery shopping, while Charles can visit city hall for discussions on his job status. Assistant State’s Attorney Mike O’Malley opposed altering the terms of their house arrest.
Sheriff’s police said records show the Sopkos had a total of 16 credit cards — several of which had multiple months of no payment — and seven had outstanding balances totaling $38,837 as of August 2013.
A Chase credit card in Charles Sopko’s name showed a payment of $18,000 in March 2009 — about two months before the first money transfer was made from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District to the Sopkos’ bank accounts, authorities said.
O’Malley said among the property that police found in the Sopkos’ home were nine computers, six televisions, a pool table, a poker table and a popcorn machine.
“There is no way he can sit here and say with the lifestyle he was living ... that he had no idea what was going on,” O’Malley said. “It defies common sense.”
Attorney Jason Danielian has contended that Charles was unaware of his wife’s embezzlement, as were fire district officials.
“They didn’t know, he didn’t know,” Danielian said Friday. “They trusted her, he trusted her.”
While Danielian was speaking in court, his client started shaking and appeared to faint. Danielian caught Charles before he fell to the floor and sat him in a nearby chair.
Police said the billing address for at least five of the couple’s overdue credit cards was switched during a four-month period ending in February 2009 from the Sopkos’ house to Michelle’s mother’s home, which police also searched on Dec. 18, the day of the Sopkos’ arrest. Michelle’s mother declined to speak to police.
Oak Forest administrator Troy Ishler and Ald. Chuck Toland (4th) appeared at the court hearing. Ishler said Sopko is still on leave from the fire department but is no longer being paid. The city council will soon decide whether Sopko will be allowed to resign as deputy chief and stay on as a lieutenant, he said.
Toland said he does not believe Sopko is guilty.
“I believe Charlie Sopko is 100 percent innocent,” he said. “They should investigate everything and everyone and they are.”
Sopko also is a member of the Oak Forest Park District Board and co-founder of the Oak Forest Fury lacrosse team, a park district program. His wife was a member of the Arbor Park School District 145 Board but resigned her seat last month.