Posts Tagged Palos FPD accuses former administrative assistant of theft

Jail for theft from Palos Fire Protection District

Excerpts from the 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: , , , ,