Email overload on Oak Forest couple’s arrests
By Casey Toner firstname.lastname@example.org January 9, 2014 9:18PM
Michelle and Charles Sopko, of Oak Forest, were arrested Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, on government theft charges. | Phil Kadner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 11, 2014 6:34AM
In the days following the shocking arrests of a politically prominent Oak Forest couple for allegedly embezzling $352,000 in public funds, residents, city and school employees and elected officials produce a blitz of emails regarding the accusation.
The SouthtownStar obtained hundreds of emails from the city, the Oak Forest Park District and Arbor Park School District 145 regarding the Dec. 18 arrests of Michelle and Charles Sopko on charges of felony theft of government property. Michelle and Charles were released from jail Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, after they established that the $10,000 bond that each posted did not come from illicit means.
Under terms of their release, Michelle will stay in their house and Charles will live with his parents, court records show. They are scheduled back in court Monday.
Michelle Sopko, formerly a part-time bookkeeper/administrative assistant with the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, allegedly manipulated payroll and accounts payable systems to divert $352,000 in district funds to the couple’s bank account over 30 months, according to prosecutors.
She is a member of the District 145 school board, and her husband is a deputy fire chief in Oak Forest, vice president of the park district board and co-founder of the Oak Forest Fury lacrosse team, a park district program.
Among other revelations, the emails show that Charles arranged to have the city pay him for unused sick pay ahead of his arrest, the District 145 superintendent expressed relief that Michelle wasn’t arrested on district property, and the park district girls softball program’s president organized a drive to buy Christmas presents for the Sopkos’ three children.
“Really stinks to have a black eye for the community, particularly with Charles Sopko being the VP of your park district and deputy fire chief!” public relations consultant Jason Sherman wrote to Oak Forest public relations coordinator Chrissy Maher. “Good luck with whole Bonnie (Michelle) and Clyde (Chuck) mess. I’m sure this will occupy a spot in your January newsletter.”
The email records show that Charles Sopko requested that the city buy out his 96 hours of unused sick time for 2013 — responding to a Dec. 10 email from city finance director Colleen Julian, asking employees if they wished to buy out their sick leave. Julian said Sopko was paid $4,549 on Dec. 20 for the unused sick days.
Range of reactions
Stunned. Confused. Devastated. Curious. These were some of the reactions reflected in the emails regarding the Sopkos’ arrests.
Oak Forest Ald. Lisa Clemons (1st) sent an email Dec. 20 to Mayor Hank Kuspa, city administrator Troy Ishler and community development director Adam Dotson, saying she was “sad and angry at the same time” regarding the arrests. “What a tragedy for (the Sopko family) and our community,” Clemons wrote.
Glenwood Fire Chief Kevin Welsh wrote to Oak Forest Fire Chief James Berger Dec. 19 that he was “shocked, devastated, hurt, you name it,” about the couple’s arrests. Midlothian Deputy Fire Chief Martin Rita sent an email to Charles Sopko on Dec. 19 with the subject line “hang in there.”
Rita wrote him to say, “If you need anything, let me know ...” Reached by phone Thursday, Rita said he wrote the email “acting on emotion” as a friend. He said he worked with Charles in fire service for 10 years, and the criminal charges against him “changed the basis of our friendship.”
“I first saw it and sent a supportive thing, and when I found out how far it went, I said ‘oh geez,’ ” Rita said. “It (email) was never meant to support or condone anything they may have done.”
Concern over where arrested
The day after Michelle Sopko’s arrest, the Cook County Sheriff’s Department sent a letter to District 145, which has schools in Oak Forest and Tinley Park, urging its officials to “verify the accuracy and appropriateness” of all transactions in which she was involved as a school board member.
District 145 Supt. Allen Jebens wrote in an email to Kerry Reidy, attorney for the sheriff’s department, saying the district had no reason to worry because board members “have no access to district funds.” On Dec. 20, Jebens emailed board members and administrators, telling them that “if crimes were committed, they will be addressed and punished. I personally don’t feel the need to revel in the misfortune of our colleague, our school district and community.”
That same day, Jebens received an email from Midlothian School District 143 Supt. Michael Hollingsworth, who wrote that news of the Sopkos’ arrest was “breaking at the right time,” near Christmas.
“As bad as this story is, and it is big and bad, for the most part people recognize this isn’t a District 145 thing,” Jebens wrote back, adding that sheriff’s police had wanted to arrest Michelle in a school parking lot after she dropped off her children. “Thank goodness some key people stepped in and convinced the county to make the arrest out of sight from the school.”
The Sopkos were arrested at their home after their children were in school.
On Thursday, Jebens said his email referred to rumors concerning Michelle’s arrest and he did not ask sheriff’s police if they would arrest Michelle off school grounds.
“I know there were some police officers that were looking out for our interests,” he said. “They didn’t need me as a superintendent to point out that, ‘you know what, let’s wait two blocks (to arrest her).’”
Oak Forest Park District Girls Softball Association president Ramon Ferralez wrote to the district’s recreation supervisor, Stephanie McDonald, on Dec. 22 that he planned to organize a Christmas present drive for the Sopko children.
“I’m not looking for anyone’s personal feedback on this, good or bad, it’s just the right thing to do for the kids,” Ferralez wrote. “This will be a non-park district event. This will be a softball family event, us supporting one of our families.”
In an earlier email, Ferralez wrote that the Sopkos “are good people and they are being judged by many.”
Oswego village manager Steve Jones, a former Oak Forest city administrator, responded to the news of the Sopkos being charged with a wry line to Julian in a Dec. 20 email — “Soooooooo, is someone going to do a legal defense fundraiser for these two?” On Thursday, Jones said he was joking.
Immediately after the Sopkos’ arrest, an email about it was forwarded among Southland municipal officials with the subject line “WTF????” records show.
Lisa Alfaro, Oak Forest Fire Department administrative assistant, emailed Flossmoor Fire Department secretary Deb Hoiden on Dec. 19, saying Lipinski was going to call Flossmoor Fire Chief Chris Sewell.
“Looks like the s*** is hitting the fan,” Hoiden replied.