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.
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.