Sopkos Still Sit on Boards, But Why?

The Oak Forest couple has been accused of embezzling more than $350K from the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, and they're still on the governmental boards they were elected to. Find out what their colleagues have to say about that.

Charles and Michelle Sopko | Credit: File Photos
Charles and Michelle Sopko | Credit: File Photos
Although the criminal embezzlement charges surrounding Charles and Michelle Sopko only center around the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, these accusations have had a troubling ripple effect in some corners of the Oak Forest community.

READ: Oak Forest Fire Deputy Chief, Wife Arrested for Alleged Embezzlement

One of the areas touched has been the boards the Sopkos were elected to serve on before their Dec. 19 arrests. Charles Sopko has been a commissioner on the Oak Forest Park District Board since 2003, and his seat will be up for re-election in 2015. Michelle Sopko was elected to the Arbor Park School District 145 in 2011, and her seat also will not be up until 2015.

Despite none of the allegations against the Sopkos involving any entities outside the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, Oak Forest residents are still concerned when it comes to what might have happened while the couple served—and still serve—on their respective boards. Patch spoke with representatives from Arbor Park School District 145 and the Oak Forest Park District to answer some of the questions on people's minds.

READ: Oak Forest Residents React to Sopkos' Arrest, Accusations

What they have to say shows a tale of two boards.

Wrongdoing on These Boards

Arbor Park School District 145
A district investigation has not uncovered any wrongdoing by Michelle Sopko, so far, and Board President Tina Moslander doesn't expect any to be found.

"We don't write checks, we don't see checks," she said, adding that board members don't have the same opportunities to divert funds that other positions might present.

The district also is waiting to hear the final report from investigators examining the Palos Heights fire district case, Moslander said.

Even before Arbor Park's investigation, the board has always had a series of checks and balances in place that would have set off red flags if there were any irregularities, Moslander said.

Oak Forest Park District Board
Although no formal investigation has been done, the park district has checks and balances instituted to detect and foil any type of financial malfeasance, said park district Director Cindy Grannan, adding the district has uncovered no wrongdoing done by Charles Sopko.

"As a board member or a commissioner, they don't handle any financial matters," Grannan said. "[They handle] policy and procedures. They don't have their hands in the day-to-day operations. If you don't touch anything, there's nothing to investigate."

Removal From Office

Arbor Park School District 146
In Illinois, there are only four ways for an elected official to leave office: Election, resignation, criminal conviction or death.

Moslander said she's heard that Michelle Sopko will tender her resignation to the board and step down. As of Wednesday, neither the district nor the board had heard from her about such a move.

Oak Forest Park District
Members of the board and district have adopted a wait-and-see attitude when it comes to Charles Sopko's future on the governmental body. Being arrested doesn't mean being found guilty in some members' eyes.

"It's completely up to Charlie Sopko on what he wants to do," said fellow Commissioner Joe Conway. "We're not going to take a stance on it. We're sticking with not guilty until proven guilty. … We'll see if he comes to the meetings. He has every right to be at the meetings."

The district's next meeting is Jan. 23, which will be the first meeting Charles Sopko would be able to attend since bonding out Jan. 9. (The board also met that night.)

Continuing Board and District Business

Arbor Park School District 145
Michelle Sopko's arrest has been a distraction for the board, even though the crimes she's been accused of had nothing to do with the district or even the City of Oak Forest, Moslander said, adding that her phone began to ring off the hook the minute news of the couple's arrest became public.

"It's been challenging," she said. "We've always done our best to lead with integrity. When news like this comes to our board, we take it very seriously, and we're distraught by it. We have the same reaction as the community. We were confused and shocked."

While news like this can divert the board's attention, it's the board members' responsibility to stay on track, Moslander said, adding that she understand why district residents are concerned.

"It's a distraction because we're here to educate kids," she said. "We have to keep focus, and we are. … Taxpayers have the right, and as a taxpayer myself, I want those questions answered myself."

Oak Forest Park District
Has the Sopkos' case been a distraction for the park district? Not according to Grannan. In fact, she hasn't received any questions from the public about it.

"I don't think it will become a distraction when it comes to board business," she said. "What happened didn't happen because of the park district. It didn't happen here. It happened to our family. I understand there's a relationship there. … [But] it doesn't affect our operation."

Moving Forward

Arbor Park School District 145
While an unfortunate situation, the controversy surrounding what's happened to the Sopkos can become a teaching moment for residents.

"I think that the example that can be made out of the Sopkos is to consistently have these checks and balances," Moslander said. "It's to always have that. I think it's a good practice to have that, even as a husband-and-wife team. It has really distracted my personal thought process as far as moving forward here.

"This is a big distraction for the city of Oak Forest and it will be tough to rebound from this. … There are still so many people who want to step up where there are voids [left by the Sopkos]."

Oak Forest Park District
For Conway and Grannan, the future means waiting for justice to be meted out for Charles Sopko. They both hope he is exonerated.

"We proceed as normal. We carry on as usual," Grannan said. "It's business as usual. It doesn't really change the things that go on here every day. It'll be fine."

Read More on the Sopkos Case:
Michael M. January 17, 2014 at 08:52 AM
They haven't heard from the public? I guess they don't read the Patch. They should both resign, and for the second time I ask that they both resign. It has nothing to do with wrongdoing on the boards they sit; it has to do with trust, we simply can't trust either of them. And those checks and balances really worked well for Palos, no matter how many systems are in place to protect from criminal behavior; the crook always finds a way. Michelle and Charlie need to resign, Period.
Sam January 17, 2014 at 11:11 AM
What about SAK basketball? Charlie was involved in that quite heavily. I agree that they probably should resign, not because they're guilty, (which I believe they are) but because with such a dramatic event happening in their lives they probably won't be able to dedicate the time they need to to fulfill their obligations on their boards. PS: Joe, please change the "they're" to "their" in the subtitle.
Dave January 17, 2014 at 01:03 PM
Sam, "they're" is correct.
Sue1 January 17, 2014 at 01:06 PM
Shouldn't they resign just based on the fact of bringing on questions for these groups? I don't know if this is true but was told Mrs. Sopko was working for Mrs. Mosslander in a home based business. Also Mr. Conway worked with Mr. Sopko in starting that lacrosse team.
Dave January 17, 2014 at 01:09 PM
What happened to innocent until proven guilty, not just with The Sopko's, but in general? For example, you see players from sports teams cut when they are allegedly involved in something, but have yet to have their day in court. They can be suspended from any future activity until due process has run it's course. So many people have decided they are guilty and don't know the facts first hand. You can have an opinion but you can't say someone should be removed from something until they're proven guilty or have admitted to the wrongdoing.
Sam January 17, 2014 at 01:14 PM
Um, no Dave. "They're" is a contraction of the words "they" and "are". There are colleagues? Again, they should step down because this process is impeding them from fully fulfilling their obligations such as being impartial, being able to attend meetings and hear new and old business, etc. It's not about guilty or not guilty, it's about being able to perform the job you were elected to do.
jack hess January 17, 2014 at 01:15 PM
Well it look like Oak forest has reverted back to the old days, of good old boys and girls. Let not do what good for the TAX PAYERS. Lets take care of friends , with paid leave and benefits.
Sam January 17, 2014 at 01:16 PM
Paid leave and benefits is different. If you were accused of a crime, you'd want your employer to go by policy. Elected office is another story.
Michael M. January 17, 2014 at 01:20 PM
Dave- innocent until proven guilty applies to the govt. not opinions of citizens. I don't trust them based on the allegations. They should understand that the appearance of criminal behavior is enough. Resignation is their only option.
Dave January 17, 2014 at 01:21 PM
I thought you were referring to "they're still on...." He must have corrected before I read it. Withdrawn.
Dave Hernandez January 17, 2014 at 01:42 PM
My two daughters are enroll in school district 145 therefore, I have attended many activities hosted by this district as well as the Oak Forest park district. Most of these activities dealt with cash rather than with checks. I saw most families gladly spending their hard earn money at these events because we believed, and still do, that the money was being well spent, we wanted to contribute to our village and it was a great way to participate with other Oak Forest residents. The Sopkos' "might" have stolen funds from Palos Heights but the cloud of shame they brought to Oak forest "might" be just as bad. I'm disappointed that the Board leaders are not more aggressive towards the removal of both of this individuals. The seriousness of the allegations alone should motivate the leaders to ask for resignations. I understand 'the wait and see attitude' when it comes to their livelihoods, but not their volunteer assistance in Oak Forest!
Sam January 17, 2014 at 02:17 PM
^I totally agree with you. The fact that these board members are saying that the Sopkos didn't deal with "checks" may be true, but that doesn't mean they didn't handle actual monetary funds. However, I am not really surprised by this as Charlie is very tight with Joe Conway and Michelle is very close with Mosslander. Frankly, I think an independent investigation into the boards is necessary, but I don't want the taxpayers to have to foot the bill when these people SHOULD have enough integrity to dot their i's and cross their t's when it comes to financial records. Just because the Sopkos may not have been in charge of finances on their respective boards does not mean that there was not some wrongdoing on their part. If they'll steal money from people, who's to say that they wouldn't do some sort of damage (financial or otherwise) to other organizations? It's a sad day when the people involved in community organizations can't even be trusted to err on the side of caution and investigate allegations with due diligence. Grannan, Mosslander and Conway: I, along with everyone else, will remember this come 2015 elections.
Joe Vince (Editor) January 17, 2014 at 02:56 PM
@Sam and @Dave: I made a correction. Sam was right in pointing it out. I appreciate it. —Joe Vince, Tinley Park and Oak Forest Patch Editor
Joe Vince (Editor) January 17, 2014 at 03:04 PM
Just to clarify something: There is no legal recourse for these boards to remove a member outside of resignation, criminal conviction or death. —Joe Vince, Tinley Park and Oak Forest Patch
Michael M. January 17, 2014 at 03:15 PM
There may not be any legal reason to remove them; but there is a moral reason. They will bring a shadow of incredulity to any boards or political positions they hold. And remember, those positions do not belong to them, they belong to the citizens. Elected officials and board members serve at the citizens pleasure.
Michael M. January 17, 2014 at 03:21 PM
As far as being guilty or not. No one is ever found to be innocent; the choice is guilty or not guilty. Not guilty does not equate to innocent; it equates to the State not PROVING their case. With that said, the Sopkos could be found Not Guilty, but there will always be that lingering feeling of guilt in the minds of the public. For that reason alone, they should resign. They should resign to keep the integrity of the boards intact.
Dave Dunn January 17, 2014 at 08:23 PM
What happened to innocent until proven guilty. Am I still in America? After reading some of the comments I wonder. If some of the people posting on this website are voters, no wonder this country is in such deep s___. Remember the law reads beyond a reasonable doubt For both of them. Mr.D
Michael M. January 17, 2014 at 08:36 PM
Dave Dunn- that has already been addressed. Unless you didn't read the responses I posted. Maybe you just don't agree with them, which is OK.
Sam January 17, 2014 at 08:42 PM
Sigh. Dave, please read the comment above yours. If you can't comprehend that, you're actually the reason that the country is going down.
Sam January 17, 2014 at 08:44 PM
I love that people are staring in the face of corruption and defending people, yet they are blaming others who are expressing opinions on that for the country being a catastrophe. Forget about the corruption, the country is bad because I wrote a comment about saying an elected official should step down when they have a huge crisis going on in their life and can't possibly uphold the obligations of their position. I guess we shouldn't expect that type of integrity at all anymore. If they are found not guilty, they can run for re-election when they don't have to devote all this time to keeping their eye on the ball in terms of their legal cases.
jack hess January 18, 2014 at 02:39 PM
This to Sam there is no policy of Oak Forest Fire Department that states if arrest that you will receive paid administrative leave with benefits (paid health insurance by the employer). This decision was made by the City of Oak Forest to keep paying Charlie. The Cook County States Attorney has great amount evidence on both Sopkos. Sam your right about having a investigation into the other areas the Sopkos were involved in. We the TAX PAYERS will have to pay for the investigation. The States Attorney Integrity unit could do this investigation, but, the Oak Forest Park District and School Board would have to make that request to the States Attorney office. I think the Citizens of Oak Forest are entitled to know why an who made the decision to give Charlie Sopko paid leave. Was it the Mayor or City Council or Oak Forest Fire Chief or all of them? Has the Police and Fire Commissioners had a public hearing on Charlie ?
Stuck in OF January 19, 2014 at 09:36 AM
are these paid positions?
Sue1 February 08, 2014 at 09:39 PM
@Jack- I have the same question. Who, when and where was the decision made to keep paying him. Now we learn that he is no longer being paid. Again, who, when and where was this decided? Did this happen at a council meeting? I didn't hear about it if it did. If either of these actions required council approval, which they should, a vote should have taken place. If not the council is in violation of the law. Calls need to be made for this to be investigated. As for resigning not resigning, guilty, not guilty, unfortunately when you are a public official, usually a resignation is tendered when allegations of wrongdoing are brought, look at our legislators. No difference. Also fair or not, I think some professions are held to a higher standard, teachers, cops and firefighters being among them. Remember when the fire fighter, I believe from Orland, an Oak Forest resident, was involved in the car accident? Guess some think that the same doesn't apply here. Different people, different rules.


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