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:
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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