Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com about the culmination of events that began in December 2013:
An Oak Forest woman on Monday described as a “terrible mistake” stealing $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, where she worked as a part-time bookkeeper.
Michelle Sopko, 46, pleaded guilty to the embezzlement scheme and was sentenced to eight years in prison under a plea agreement accepted by a Cook County judge. After she pleaded to one count of theft of government property valued at more than $100,000, Sopko was immediately taken into custody, waving goodbye to family members in the courtroom before being escorted out.
Prosecutors said Sopko stole money from the fire district via 177 separate transactions over a 30-month period from 2009 through 2012 — paying herself overtime that she didn’t accrue and wasn’t eligible to receive. She worked for the Palos Heights Fire District for four years before being fired in December 2012 after the fire chief discovered that she had signed the district treasurer’s name on a check without the treasurer’s knowledge or consent.
Assistant State’s Attorney Mike O’Malley said Sopko also created two “ghost” employees, including one who was a former fire district employee, and diverted their salaries to her bank account, with the money going for food, clothing, mortgage payments, home repairs and travel. He said the thefts began in May 2009, shortly after Sopko persuaded the district’s former chief to allow her to handle the district payroll. As soon as she took on those duties, “she began stealing,” he said.
O’Malley said that while the Sopkos’ combined income stayed “stagnant” at about $100,000 a year, a review of their bank records and credit card statements showed that their spending soared after the embezzlement began. Spending that was just under $90,000 in 2009, the year Michelle began working for the fire district, jumped to $177,000 in 2010, $187,000 in 2011 and $211,000 in 2012, he said.
Money went toward everyday items including groceries, clothing and mortgage payments but also allowed the family to “travel wherever and whenever they wanted,” O’Malley said, citing trips to Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
O’Malley said that because of the embezzlement, the Palos Heights district is facing penalties and fines levied by the IRS and had to take a loan to buy a piece of firefighting equipment rather than use available cash.
The couple was arrested in December 2013, but Michelle Sopko had previously insisted her husband wasn’t involved in the scheme. He was a deputy fire chief in Oak Forest and was later stripped of those duties, but he still holds the rank of lieutenant in the department. He is also on the park district board in that city.
The district last month sued Sopko in an effort to recoup the stolen money. In an email, Conway said Sopko has admitted to the allegations in that lawsuit, and the district is accepting the partial payment “in light of Ms. Sopko’s admission to the district that she no longer possesses the stolen funds and in light of her representation that she does not have the financial resources to make an entire repayment.”
The sentence didn’t require that Sopko make the fire district whole for the theft, but O’Malley said Sopko’s family members, including her mother, have offered restitution in the amount of $120,000. Sean Conway, an attorney for the Palos Heights district, said it expects to receive a payment of $60,000 this week and subsequent annual payments of $15,000 for the next four years.
Sopko was motivated “by greed” and engineered a “systematic and calculated theft,” O’Malley said, adding that “she has earned every day she is going to spend” in prison.