Cops: Oak Forest woman took $350k from Palos Heights fire district
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org December 19, 2013 10:21AM
Michelle and Charles Sopko, of Oak Forest, were arrested Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013, on government theft charges. | Phil Kadner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 21, 2014 6:22AM
Oak Forest residents are trying to understand how a married couple who “were part of everything in this community” find themselves accused of stealing $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District.
Charles Sopko, 47, is a deputy fire chief in Oak Forest, vice president of the park board and co-founder of the Oak Forest Fury lacrosse team.
His wife, Michelle, 45, is a member of the Arbor Park School District 145 Board and “was always active in any community improvement project going on,” a neighbor said.
But as a part-time bookkeeper/administrative assistant with the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, Michelle Sopko allegedly manipulated payroll and accounts payable systems to hide the diversion of $352,000 to the couple’s bank account over a period of about 30 months from 2009 to 2012, according to Cook County sheriff’s police.
She was fired from her job a year ago when Fire Chief Timothy Sarhage discovered that she had signed the fire district treasurer’s name on a check without the treasurer’s knowledge or consent, according to the fire district. Sopko worked for the district since October 2008, was paid $14 per hour and worked three days per week, sheriff’s police said.
Sarhage, who asked law enforcement to initiate an investigation, said audits failed to detect the theft because Sopko prepared false payroll and monthly accounting reports and false financial statements, misleading the auditors.
The Sopkos are both charged with felony theft of more than $100,000 in government property.
Two neighbors of the couple said Thursday that Michelle had voiced concern about the family’s finances when her husband was promoted in January 2009 to deputy chief at a salary of $99,000 a year.
“She worried about the loss of overtime and how they were going to make that money up,” one neighbor said. “She said she would have to find a job to make ends meet.”
The Sopkos’ house in Oak Forest seems to be a modest ranch, and neighbors who have been inside told me there was nothing to indicate lavish spending on the interior.
But one neighbor noted the purchase of a new above-ground pool, a camper and a trailer as indications that the Sopkos did seem to have money to spend. Records also indicate the couple own a boat. Some residents said the Sopkos often took expensive vacations on cruise ships.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, whose department conducted the investigation and participated in the arrests of the couple, said “I can’t tell you they bought luxurious cars or houses or clothes or anything like that. ... It looks as if it was primarily used for items that they consumed in their family.”
All the neighbors I spoke with Thursday used words such as “shocked,” “surprised” and “awestruck” when they heard the news that the Sopkos had been arrested that morning.
A sheriff’s police spokesman said police waited for the couple’s three children (the oldest a freshman in high school) to leave the house for school before making the arrests.
Oak Forest city administrator Troy Ishler said Charles Sopko would be placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings against him.
“There is no indication that any money from the Oak Forest Fire Department is involved in this,” Ishler said. “We will be conducting an internal investigation. But I’m shocked (about the charges). More than shocked. These were two people who were involved in everything in our community.”
Mayor Hank Kuspa said he was “totally shocked” to learn of the arrests, describing Charles Sopko as a “friend of mine for a long, long time. I really can’t say anything negative about Charlie. I wish Charlie all the best in the world. I’m hoping for the best.”
Barbara Harris, a neighbor of the Sopkos, contacted me to say, “you would never meet two finer people.
“When my son was in the hospital, Michelle went around collecting money in the neighborhood for flowers,” Harris said. “When I found a horse wandering around in my back yard, I called Charlie and he came right over and took care of it. He found it belonged to a neighbor.
“One day a few years ago, I looked outside my window, and their son was shoveling the snow. I offered to pay him and he refused. He said he would never take money for helping out a neighbor. Their children are just like that. They’re wonderful kids.”
Yet one neighbor pointed to a basketball pole in a parkway in front of the Sopko home, with the hoop facing the street.
“No one else could get away with that,” he said. “It’s a violation of the city code. But he got away with it.”
Michelle Sopko, I was told, recently campaigned aggressively for a school district tax hike, but the Sopkos owe $3,860 in overdue property tax on their house and were frequently late in paying (resulting in penalties) in previous years, according to the county treasurer’s office. The property tax is the primary means of financing school districts in Illinois.
James Emmett, president of the Oak Forest Park District Board, said his reaction was, “Oh, my gosh, no,” when he heard about the charges against the Sopkos. Emmett, an Oak Forest police officer, said he never saw any indication that the couple were in need of money or spending lavishly.
“I can’t say we were close personal friends,” he said. “We just served together on the park board. But I saw nothing that would lead me to believe something was wrong.”
District 145 Supt. Allen Jebens said the district is “saddened by the news” of Michelle Sopko’s arrest, calling her an “active parent (in the district) and an active community member.”
I received an email Thursday from an Oak Forest resident who said many neighbors and friends of the Sopkos wanted to know where and when the bond hearing would be held so they could show up in a mass display of support for the couple. That hearing is set for Friday at the county courthouse in Bridgeview.
Many people voiced concern for the Sopko children.
“If they did this, how could you if you were thinking at all about your children?” asked one parent, echoing the sentiments expressed by many others.
“As far as motive and those types of questions, it appears to be the motive that you have in most cases, just for financial gain,” Dart said.
Yesterday, the Sopkos were community leaders. Today, their mugshots are in the newspapers.
Contributing: Mike Nolan, Tina Sfondeles