Prosecutor details Oak Forest couple’s alleged fraud scheme
By Casey Toner email@example.com December 23, 2013 1:14PM
Michelle Sopko / photo from Cook County Sheriff's office
Updated: January 25, 2014 6:17AM
A Cook County judge on Monday set bail at $100,000 each for an Oak Forest couple accused of embezzling more than $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District over a 30-month period from 2009 to 2012.
Circuit Court Judge Kerry Kennedy also froze money intended for downstate Illinois tornado victims that Charles and Michelle Sopko helped raise, in part through the city of Oak Forest’s website, pending further investigation.
The couple were arrested at their home Thursday and held over the weekend pending Monday’s hearing. Each is charged with felony theft of more than $100,000 in government property.
Michelle Sopko, formerly a part-time bookkeeper/administrative assistant with the fire protection district, allegedly manipulated payroll and accounts payable systems to hide the diversion of $352,000 to the couple’s bank account, according to Cook County sheriff’s police. She started weeping when the judge set her bail Monday.
Sopko is a member of the Arbor Park School District 145 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. They have three children, who have been staying with a relative since their arrest.
Sopko 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.
At Monday’s court hearing, Assistant State’s Attorney Mike O’Malley said Sopko conducted an elaborate ghost-payrolling scheme using the Social Security number of a former fire district employee to pay two fictional employees, and diverted that money into an account that she and her husband controlled.
She also paid herself overtime she did not actually work and issued duplicate insurance payments made out to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, sending one payment to the couple’s bank account, O’Malley told the judge. He also said Sopko occasionally would funnel money to their account that was to be rebated to residents who overpaid for ambulance services.
Sopko concealed the improprieties by making fraudulent entries in the payroll and accounting system as well as doctoring monthly and yearly financial reports, the prosecutor said, and she also printed tax forms for herself that only showed her receiving her regular pay of $14 an hour.
O’Malley said that when the scheme began, Charles Sopko had his Oak Forest Fire Department check deposited into the same account where the stolen money was deposited, later opening a joint account with his wife at a different bank in April 2010 and depositing his checks there.
He said the couple used the stolen funds to pay for everyday expenses. The couple’s total income combined with the embezzled money during the 30-month period was $601,603, and they spent $665,547 during that same time, according to O’Malley. He told the judge they each had debit cards for the bank account where the stolen money was placed as well as more than 10 credit cards, each of which carried a large balance.
The Palos Heights Fire Protection District needed to buy a new fire truck this year and eventually took out a $350,000 loan to pay for it due to the stolen money, the prosecutor said.
Jason Danielian, Charles Sopko’s attorney, said his client was the victim of his wife’s scheme.
“A crime was committed, and he, too, was deceived,” Danielian said.
Danielian said Charles Sopko learned that his wife was under investigation for the first time on Dec. 3.
“Thieving, dishonesty, and scheming aren’t in this man’s makeup,” he said.
Arguing for bail as high as $400,000 for Charles Sopko, O’Malley mentioned a fundraising notice the couple posted Nov. 20 on the Oak Forest website. The Oak Forest Fury lacrosse team planned to run concessions during youth basketball games at Jack Hille and Arbor Park middle schools on Nov. 23, with all proceeds to benefit the St. Patrick Church Tornado Relief Fund in Washington, Ill., which was hard hit by tornados in November.
The Sopkos were collecting goods and hosting a 50/50 raffle as well as a donation bucket at the games to benefit tornado relief efforts, according to the notice.
But O’Malley said the couple were really trying to raise cash for themselves. Kennedy said he wanted all funds the couple helped raise for charity frozen, pending further investigation.
Monica Mueller, a bookkeeper for the downstate church and its tornado relief fund, said her organization is still processing all the donations and is unsure what, if any, donations came from the Sopkos.
“We have thousands of donations coming in from all over, and we’re doing our level best,” Mueller said.
The Sopkos are next due in court on Jan. 6. The judge told them that before they could be released from jail, they would have to prove to him that their bond money did not come from illicit means.