Oak Forest park commissioners bill taxpayers for downtown conventions
By Casey Toner email@example.com March 4, 2014 8:54PM
An Oak Forest Park District Board committee holds a meeting Thursday in Oak Forest. | Gary Middendorf/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 6, 2014 6:07AM
Being an Oak Forest Park District commissioner is an unpaid position — but at least once a year membership has had its perks.
Records obtained by the SouthtownStar show that all five current commissioners have spent taxpayer money on expensive lunches and dinners and incurred thousands of dollars in hotel bills at the Hyatt Regency Chicago during the annual Illinois Association of Park Districts/Illinois Park and Recreation Association conferences.
What’s more, an examination of the records shows that not all of the expenses add up. While park district policy requires commissioners to submit receipts and a detailed expense report to be reimbursed, some officials regularly received the money without providing documentation, according to records.
“These appointed or elected officials are living high on the hog off the taxpayers’ dime,” said Susan Garrett, board chairman of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. “We do not support that kind of public service.”
The use of public funds to cover such expenses — at a conference about 25 miles from the park district offices — are documented in receipts, expense reports and payment histories the newspaper obtained from the park district following the December arrest of park board vice president Charles Sopko.
Sopko and his wife, Michelle, are charged with taking $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District over 30 months from 2009 through 2012. Sopko, who is on unpaid leave as Oak Forest’s deputy fire chief, is listed as vice president on the park district’s website and also founded the Oak Forest Fury, a popular park district lacrosse program.
“Simply the best.” That’s how the Hyatt Regency Chicago describes itself on its website.
The AAA four-diamond hotel in downtown Chicago has more than 2,000 guest rooms, many with a view of the city skyline. It’s where Oak Forest’s park district commissioners and officials have stayed when they attend the annual convention — at a cost of about $15,700 during the past five years, even though the hotel is about a 40-minute drive from Oak Forest.
Money for the annual conference comes out of the park district’s training budget, which shrank from $8,000 to $4,000 this year after the commissioners opted out of this year’s conference in January as part of cost reductions, according to district director Cindy Grannan.
Grannan said she has booked rooms at the upscale hotel to make it easier for conference attendees.
“I swear it always snowstorms or is 20 below zero at conference time,” she said. “It (conference day) can (end) at 8 or 9 at night. To walk through the city and hop on a train, no one really wants to do that. It’s just easier.”
She also said it’s “not as easy as you think” to get parking in Chicago due to traffic from the parks and recreation convention.
“All the park districts in Illinois are invited and go to this conference, it’s humongous,” Grannan said.
Outside of networking opportunities, Grannan said the conferences offer workshops and training on a variety of park district subjects from finance to park maintenance.
“You come back with a wealth of knowledge and excitement for your job,” she said.
Commissioner Joseph Conway said district officials stay at the Hyatt Regency because of “logistics.”
“It’s an opportunity to talk with vendors and not worry about, ‘Hey, I have to get out of here and I have to head home,’ ” Conway said. “You never know what the weather is going to be. Considering the back and forth, it doesn’t always work.”
Dining like ... commissioners
Bowls of lobster bisque, pan-seared king salmon, dry-aged ribeye steak, prime rib, shrimp cocktail.
Those are just some of the meals that the commissioners have enjoyed at fancy Chicago restaurants at the public’s expense while attending the park districts conference.
“You go downtown, you can’t get (a nice meal) under $40 to $50,” said Commissioner James Emmett, who’s the board president.
Seven people, including Sopko, Emmett and Commissioner Sal Mosqueda, dined at a restaurant — which was not named in paperwork — on Jan. 28, 2010, at a cost of $427.98, according to a bill that later was submitted by Commissioner John Fitzsimons. The bill shows the group bought three Italian pork chop dinners for a total of $80.85, two prime rib entrees for $63.90 and two shrimp cocktails for $33.90, among other menu items.
Records show that Sopko, Mosqueda and Emmett also were among a group of seven diners at the Chicago Firehouse restaurant Jan. 27, 2011. A receipt shows they bought three Chicago Firehouse steaks for a total of $114, a dry-aged ribeye steak for $44, two pork chops for $50 and two bowls of lobster bisque for $16, among other selections. The total bill that night was $434.87.
Fitzsimons submitted a receipt for reimbursement for a Jan. 28, 2011, meal at Wildfire Restaurant in Chicago that cost $616.93. The receipt doesn’t itemize the meals ordered or who dined. That bill counted toward about $650 that Fitzsimons received for expenses in 2011 — well above the $300 in total reimbursement that commissioners are supposed to receive for the three-day convention.
Grannan said Fitzsimons was reimbursed after buying the park district staff an appreciation dinner.
“(It shows) this is worth the blood, sweat and tears of setting up and taking down and being on your hands and knees and blowing up balloons,” Grannan said about the dinner.
Fitzsimons, Mosqueda and Sopko did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.
No info on spending
Records show that during the conventions of 2009 to 2013, only Conway among Oak Forest’s park board members documented his expenses during the two years, 2012 and 2013, in which he attended to get his $100 per diem. The others did in some years but did not in others — getting reimbursed nonetheless.
Grannan said former commissioner Patrick Burns, who was replaced by Conway in 2011, did not attend the conferences in 2009 and 2010.
Sopko submitted no receipts or expense reports in 2009, 2010 and 2012 but received $900, records show. Mosqueda also did not submit paperwork in 2010 and 2012 but was reimbursed $600; Fitzsimons provided no documentation in 2009 and 2013 and received $400 (after going two days each of those years); and Emmett also did not in 2009, 2010, 2012, and 2013 and received $1,200, according to district records.
Emmett said he tries to make a point of providing his convention receipts to the park district for reimbursement but doesn’t always remember to do so. He estimated that he spends about $500 of his own money at the conference, well beyond what he’s reimbursed.
For the 2011 trip, Sopko, Mosqueda and Emmett all turned in identical expense reports, claiming $168.66 in expenses each but being reimbursed $300 apiece, according to district records.
Grannan said the board members approve all bills, including their reimbursements.
“They’re supposed to turn in receipts for their expenses, without a doubt,” Grannan said. “In a perfect world, that happens. We’re not in a perfect world.”
This round’s on taxpayers
The limited number of receipts that commissioners turned in for reimbursement shows that $297 worth of alcohol was purchased by commissioners during the last four conventions.
Conway said the commissioners typically buy drinks for other commissioners and vendors, but not for themselves, in the course of doing business.
“It’s really a networking event,” Conway said of the conference.
Conway was the only commissioner to provide receipts documenting all his reimbursed expenses in 2012 and 2013, the two years he attended the conference. One of his receipts shows that he and seven other guests bought a total of 23 beers, including brands such as Sam Adams and Blue Moon, at a Jan. 25, 2013, lunch at Houlihan’s in Chicago. The receipt doesn’t show who went to lunch.
Conway also was reimbursed for $24 worth of popcorn, soda and Peanut M&Ms while watching a movie matinee at an AMC theater on Jan. 26, 2013. Later that night, the Hyatt Regency charged Conway’s room $18.60 for two minibar beers and $10.63 for a bottle of Evian water.
“It could very well have been someone else,” Conway said about the minibar costs. “I don’t recall being the person taking anything out of the mini-bar. It definitely was not me.”
Conway counted the movie theater purchases and hotel room drinks as “dinner expenses,” according to his expense report. He declined comment when asked if taxpayers should pay for his beer and movie theater treats.
“It’s a weeklong conference, and we get free time,” Conway said, adding that he didn’t remember what movie he saw. “We go out and spread out our legs and unwind.”