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Oak Forest, Oak Fest records subpoenaed in Sopko inquiry

Michelle Sopko / phofrom Cook County Sheriff's office

Michelle Sopko / photo from Cook County Sheriff's office

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Updated: February 27, 2014 6:47AM



Cook County prosecutors have subpoenaed Oak Forest documents for the fire department and the annual Oak Fest summer event in an ongoing investigation into a couple accused of embezzling $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, records show.

The city received two grand jury subpoenas this month, seeking financial records related to Michelle and Charles Sopko, the Oak Forest deputy fire chief who is on paid leave. The couple are charged with felony theft of government property for allegedly embezzling the funds from the Palos Heights district over a 30-month period from 2009 to 2012.

Michelle Sopko, who was a part-time bookkeeper/administrative assistant with the fire district, falsified payroll and accounts payable systems to divert district funds into the couple’s bank account, according to prosecutors. She was dismissed from that job in December 2012.

City Clerk Scott Burkhardt sent an email Jan. 2, summarizing the subpoenas, to several city officials, including Mayor Hank Kuspa, finance director Colleen Julian, city administrator Troy Ishler and Fire Chief Terry Lipinski, the emails show.

Burkhardt informed them that the state’s attorney’s office was requesting all records pertaining to Oak Fest from 2000 to 2013, and all items related to Michelle Sopko’s work on the festival, including money received or deposited into city bank accounts. The subpoena also asked for all records pertaining to the Sopkos’ house in the 5200 block of West Kathleen Court, including bills, invoices and permits.

Also, Assistant State’s Attorney Mike O’Malley sent a subpoena to Lipinski on Dec. 31, requesting all records pertaining to Charles Sopko, including his payroll history, personnel file, job description, time-off sheets (including vacation time), job description, and a list of fire department equipment given to him. Lipinski was ordered to appear Jan. 9 at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago.

Reached for comment, Oak Fest chairman Joe Koce said it was the first time he had heard about the subpoena for festival-related documents.

He said Michelle Sopko is one of 25 Oak Fest Committee members and has been in charge of bingo during the five-day festival, which is operated by a nonprofit group through an agreement with the city. In 2012, the group raised $176,000 and spent $178,000 on the festival, according to its 2012 tax filing.

Koce said Sopko oversaw a “couple hundred dollars a day” in her role but had no other access to the nonprofit’s finances, which are primarily controlled by the organization’s four board members. He said the Oak Fest organizers would know if any bingo proceeds turned up missing.

“We keep records year to year to year, and we know when something will feel right,” Koce said, adding that his organization has not been subpoenaed.

Regarding the subpoenas, Kuspa said the city’s “doors are open, the books are open, anybody and anyone is invited. I want to know as much as them (prosecutors) or more than anybody else to make sure there was no wrongdoing in Oak Forest.”

The Sopkos were heavily involved in the community. Charles Sopko is vice president of the Oak Forest Park District Board and a co-founder of the Oak Forest Fury lacrosse team, a park district program.

He’s also the league director of the privately run S.A.K. youth basketball program in the city, and Michelle is a member of the organization’s board of directors and is in charge of concessions. She also was a school board member in Arbor School District 145 before resigning Jan. 20.

The Sopkos are out on bail and are next due in court Feb. 7.



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