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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.

Sopkos Still Sit on Boards, But Why?
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:

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