Posts Tagged Michelle Sopko

Palos Fire Protection District initiates arrests for theft (more)

Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:

A Cook County judge on Wednesday acquitted a former Oak Forest deputy fire chief of criminal responsibility in connection with his wife’s embezzlement of about $350,000 from her employer.

After a three-day trial, Circuit Judge Kerry Kennedy found Charles Sopko not guilty of theft and operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise. Kennedy said he was not completely swayed by the prosecution’s argument that the couple’s increased spending reflected the stolen funds and that Sopko should have known the money was not legitimate.

They presented evidence during this week’s trial that Charles and Michelle Sopko spent money on luxury vacations, cars and a mobile home and ran up expensive credit card bills for other personal expenses. While Charles Sopko may not have actively participated in the thefts, he was guilty of a crime once the money went into his bank account and he spent it, prosecutors contended.

But in announcing his verdict, Kennedy said he had a “doubt in my mind” that the Sopkos’ lifestyle was afforded largely by the embezzled money, mentioning that several family members and friends of Charles attended the trial. “There are a whole cadre of people out there who care about him. How do I know they didn’t give him some of this (stuff),” the judge said.

In his closing argument Wednesday, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael O’Malley said Sopko should have realized that his family’s spending during the period of the thefts far exceeded its annual income, which consisted of his Oak Forest Fire Department salary of about $91,000 and his wife earning about $10,000 per year. “This family survived on the pocketbook of Palos Heights taxpayers,” O’Malley said “This guy had developed a lifestyle that was well above (the family’s) means.”

But Kennedy responded, “Did the Sopko family live above their means? Show me someone who doesn’t.”

The key prosecution witness was Detective Sgt. James Hennelly, of the Cook County sheriff’s police financial crimes unit, who in great detail showed how much the Sopkos spent during the time that Michelle was stealing funds from the fire district.

Michelle Sopko was expected to testify Wednesday in her husband’s defense, saying he had no knowledge of her thefts, but she was not called nor did the defense present any evidence or testimony.

In his closing argument, defense attorney Jason Danielian said his client was not aware of the embezzlement scheme and that he should be seen as a victim of his wife’s criminal activity.

Charles Sopko, who while removed as deputy chief remains a fire lieutenant, declined to comment on the verdict. He previously turned down a plea agreement from prosecutors that would have placed him on two years’ probation — choosing instead to go to trial on charges that would have mandated prison time if he had been found guilty.

Also Wednesday, Michelle Sopko appeared for a hearing before Kennedy on her request for a reduction of her prison term, which is being served at the Decatur Correctional Center in central Illinois.

The hearing could not be conducted because she no longer has an attorney. A public defender was appointed to represent her, and the hearing was continued to September.

More on this can be found HERE.

Share/Save

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Palos Fire Protection District initiates arrests for theft (more)

Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:

Cook County prosecutors presented evidence Tuesday that a former deputy chief for the Oak Forest Fire Department had extravagant living expenses during the time his wife was embezzling about $350,000 from the fire district where she worked.

Charles Sopko is on trial before Circuit Court Judge Kerry Kennedy at the county courthouse in Bridgeview, accused of knowing of his wife’s thefts and going along with the scheme.

Sopko should have been aware that most of the money suddenly flowing into the couples’ joint bank accounts was not legitimate, according to prosecutors. They say such knowledge is sufficient for Sopko to be guilty of the charges against him — theft and operating a continuing financial crimes enterprise.

Sopko’s wife, Michelle, is serving an eight-year prison term for embezzling the funds while she was a part-time administrative assistant for the Palos Heights Fire Protection District. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced in March.

She stole money from the fire district through 177 transactions over a 30-month period starting in May 2009 — paying herself overtime that she didn’t accrue and creating two “ghost” employees, diverting their pay into the couple’s bank accounts, according to prosecutors.

Cook County sheriff’s police Detective Sgt. James Hennelly, of the department’s financial crimes unit, resumed his testimony on Tuesday, giving a detailed account of the finances of Charles and Michelle Sopko during the time of the thefts from 2009 to 2012.

Citing records, Hennelly told the judge that the couple’s spending rose sharply during the period of the thefts. He said $19,831 was spent on nine trips that Charles Sopko took during that time period, including a cruise to Key West, Fla., and Cozumel in Mexico.

There also were other expenses for several hundred dollars at a time when the couple stayed at high-end hotels in downtown Chicago, Hennelly testified.

But defense attorney Jason Danielian got Hennelly to admit that Charles Sopko was legitimately on vacation during all those trips and that Hennelly made no effort to determine the nature of the trips.

“My client was not AWOL at any time” from his firefighter duties? Danielian asked.

“No, sir,” Hennelly responded.

Hennelly also testified about the many types of credit cards that were found in the Sopko residence on Cathleen Drive in Oak Forest at the time of their arrest in December 2013.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael O’Malley said payments were made to those numerous credit accounts from the couples’ bank accounts where the stolen money was deposited.

Danielian tried poking holes in Hennelly’s investigative techniques, getting him to acknowledge that he never tried to verify the exact nature of the expenditures or where the money came from, beyond what was shown in the bank records.

“I couldn’t tell which items were purchased legitimately and which were not,” Hennelly said in response to one question.

Danielian also hinted that Michelle Sopko, who’s imprisoned at the Decatur Correctional Center, may have forged Charles’ signature on some documents. Hennelly said investigators had not obtained a handwriting analysis of the records.

Hennelly’s testimony took up all of Tuesday afternoon, and he is expected to resume testimony Wednesday afternoon. O’Malley has said prosecutors will rest their case once he is finished.

Danielian has said he plans to have Michelle Sopko testify that she controlled the family finances, and her husband knew nothing about her embezzlement scheme. She is expected to appear in court Wednesday afternoon.

Also from the ChicagoTribune.com:

Cook County prosecutors on Monday described a former Oak Forest deputy fire chief and his wife as a “criminal organization” for allegedly embezzling about $350,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District.

Assistant State’s Attorney Michael O’Malley so characterized the couple during his opening statement in the trial of Charles Sopko at the county courthouse in Bridgeview.

O’Malley said Monday that Charles Sopko is equally guilty in the embezzlement scheme because he knowingly went along and spent the hundreds of thousands of dollars — money that he should have suspected was improperly gained.

Charles Sopko “is half of a criminal organization known as the Sopko family,” O’Malley told the judge.

Detective Sgt. James Hennelly, of the Cook County sheriff’s police financial crimes unit, testified Monday that Michelle Sopko had $396,300 placed via direct deposit into her bank account during those 30 months as salary for her working two or three days per week for the fire district.

In reality, Hennelly said, she should have received only $41,602 during that period for her work, which included handling the district’s payroll.

Hennelly said money from the couple’s salaries was sent by direct deposit into a bank account in both of their names, and the extra money stolen by Michelle Sopko was then transferred to an account in Charles Sopko’s name.

Danielian insisted Monday that his client was innocent of wrongdoing. At one point, he got Palos Heights fire Chief Timothy Sarhage to say that when the fire district sued to recover the rest of the stolen funds, the lawsuit was filed against Michelle Sopko and Andy Zilis (an accountant who oversaw her work) but not against Charles Sopko.

Charles Sopko has contended since he and his wife were arrested in December 2013 that he was unaware of the embezzlement, saying his wife handled the family’s finances.

But O’Malley scoffed at that Monday, telling the judge that because of his management position in the city fire department, Sopko would have had to realize that his wife couldn’t possibly be earning such a large sum from part-time work for the fire district.

“The defendant would have to be brain-dead to not know what was going on,” he said, adding that Charles Sopko “is not brain-dead, he’s just a thief.”

Family members of Michelle Sopko have agreed to pay back $120,000 to the fire district to settle its lawsuit against her to recover the stolen funds.

thanks Dan

Previous posts can be found HERE

Tags: , , , , , ,

Palos Fire Protection District initiates arrests for theft (more)

Excerpts from the ChicagoTribune.com:

A Cook County judge will decide whether a former Oak Forest deputy fire chief schemed with his wife to embezzle about $352,000 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District.

At a hearing Tuesday for Charles Sopko, Circuit Court Judge Kerry Kennedy set a trial date of July 20 at the county courthouse in Bridgeview. He is charged with felony theft of more than $100,000 in government property.

Sopko and his wife are accused of conspiring to steal the money over a 30-month period from 2009 through 2012 from the fire district, where she worked — paying herself overtime that she didn’t accrue and wasn’t eligible to receive. Prosecutors said she manipulated payroll and accounts payable systems to divert district funds into the couple’s bank account, with the stolen money going for food, clothing, mortgage payments, home repairs and travel.

The couple was arrested in December 2013. Charles Sopko, 48, was a deputy fire chief at the time but was later removed from that position. He still holds the rank of lieutenant in the fire department and has been on paid leave from that job since his arrest.

Michelle Sopko has insisted that her husband didn’t know about the stolen money, a claim that was echoed by her sister, who said Michelle handled all of the finances in the household.

Michelle was fired from the Palos Heights fire district 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. The chief asked Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart’s office to investigate financial irregularities, which resulted in the charges against the couple.

Incarcerated at the Decatur Correctional Center, Michelle Sopko is seeking a reduction of her sentence, and Kennedy is scheduled to hear the request July 22. She is eligible for day-for-day good time that would potentially cut her sentence in half, and her projected parole date is in February 2019, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections.

Previous post on this topic are HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Tags: , , , ,

Jail for theft from Palos Fire Protection District

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.

thanks Dan

Previous posts on this subject are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Palos Fire Protection District initiates arrests for theft (more)

A recent article about the arrests for theft from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District includes more details:

Prosecutors describe the “complicated scheme to embezzle money” used by a Palos Heights Fire Protection District employee.

During a bond hearing Monday morning, Assistant State’s Attorney Michael O’Malley of the financial crimes unit detailed the various schemes he says Michelle Sopko employed to pilfer a total of $352,938 from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District and into a bank account shared with her husband, Charles Sopko.

The schemes included collecting overtime payments which she did not earn, nor was entitled to earn. She also created a ghost payroll in which she directed payments to two nonexistent employees into her own account, using a former employee’s social security number to create the phantom employees, O’Malley said.

READ: Bail Set at $100K for Oak Forest Couple Accused of Embezzlement

She also pocketed duplicate payments to Blue Cross Blue Shield, redirecting the extra payment to herself. She also stole duplicate payments from ambulance services when they should have been reimbursed, O’Malley said.  To hide her actions she created fraudulent financial entries and manipulated board reports to hide the alleged embezzlement.

Michelle Sopko was employed by the district as a part-time employee  from October 2008 to February 2012 earning $14 per hour. She was tasked with issuing payroll and handling bills. The investigation into her activities started in February 2012 when new Fire Chief Tim Sarhage discovered that she had signed checks using a board member’s name, O’Malley said. She initially denied the action, but later admitted doing so and was fired, O’Malley added.

Because Sopko had tied her personal email account to the district’s payroll system, she continued to receive notifications when someone would log in. She would then call Sarhage and offer her services to help prepare W-2 forms or assist with payroll even after she had been terminated, O’Malley said. Her offers were declined.

O’Malley says there is “a paper trail of all the transactions.” He also alleged that Michelle’s husband, Oak Forest Dep. Fire Chief Charles Sopko, had to have been aware of her actions.

Because of the large sum stolen over a few short years and a rapid rise in the duo’s household expenditures, coupled with the fact that he had a card and used the account to which the embezzled funds were diverted, O’Malley alleges there was no way he could not have been aware.

In 2009 the couple brought in incomes of $88,978 and spent almost the exact same amount, according to O’Malley. In 2010, through salary and allegedly embezzled funds the couple netted $150,420 and spent $177,584. Then in 2011 the amount brought in through legitimate and illegitimate means was just over $170,000 while household expenditures were $187,065. Finally, in 2012 a total of $191,783 was brought in while the family spent $211,927, O’Malley alleged.

O’Malley also offered Charles Sopko’s decision in April 2010 to open a new account at a different bank in which to deposit his legitimate Oak Forest Fire Department salary as proof that he wanted to separate the two income flows. Charles Sopko’s attorney Jason Danielian countered that he was simply giving business to a friend’s recently opened mom and pop bank.

During an impassioned presentation to the judge Danielian said his client only became aware of the embezzlement earlier this month when his wife confessed to taking about $100,000. Danielian said his client was immediately willing to speak to investigators, open the couple’s home to a search and even to sit for an interview without a lawyer in the room.

“His reputation in the fire service is stellar,” Danielian said. “[He’s a] fire official that everyone in the fire service deserves to have.”

O’Malley countered that it is those same fire and community connections that has allowed the couple to stay ahead of the investigation. He alleges they learned of a sealed secret grand jury investigation earlier this year and were made aware of the warrant issued against them last week before it was entered in any system. “It’s clear that as a deputy fire chief he is using his connections and power to his benefit,” O’Malley said.

“She perpetrated a fraud against her employer, she perpetrated a fraud against her husband,” Danielian said.

Both Sopkos have extensive ties to the Oak Forest community. In addition to his duties with the Oak Forest Fire Department, Charles Sopko is the vice president of the Oak Forest Park District and is active in coaching youth sports. Michelle Sopko is a member of the Arbor Park District 145 Board of Education.

It is these community roots, in conjunction with the couple’s three children, that both lawyers highlighted in their remarks before the judge.

O’Malley countered that one community group not present in the courtroom was the Palos Heights Fire District who had to recently take out a loan to pay for a new fire engine.

The loan was for $350,000.

The hearing over bond funds is set for Jan. 6.

thanks Dan

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Palos Fire Protection District initiates arrests for theft

The Chicago Tribune has an article which states that the Palos Fire Protection District is has accused a former administrative assistant and her husband, Oak Forest Fire Department Deputy Chief Charles Sopko of theft.

A former administrative assistant for the Palos Heights Fire Protection District and her husband – a deputy fire chief in Oak Forest – are accused of stealing more than $350,000 from her former employer, officials said.

Michelle Sopko, 45, and Charles Sopko, 47 of Oak Forest were arrested this morning and each charged with one count of theft of governmental property, a felony. They were scheduled to appear for a hearing at the Bridgeview Courthouse on Friday.

Earlier this year, a new Palos Heights Fire Protection District chief noticed discrepancies in the district’s financial records and asked Palos Heights police and the Cook County sheriff’s department to investigate, according to the sheriff’s office. The agencies found that Michelle Sopko had diverted about $352,000 to a bank account she shared with her husband.

Michelle Sopko had worked for the Palos Heights fire district from October 2008 to December 2012, when she was fired for unrelated reasons, the office said. Her job had included preparing and issuing payroll checks and paid district expenses.

thanks Dan

Tags: , , , ,