SINGAPORE: Six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders were sentenced to between 21 months and eight years' jail on Friday (Nov 20) for misappropriating S$50 million of church funds.
Senior pastor Kong Hee, the founder of the church, was sentenced to eight years' imprisonment for criminal breach of trust. John Lam, former secretary of the church's management board, was sentenced to three years' jail. Sharon Tan, former finance manager, was sentenced to 21 months in prison. Former board member Chew Eng Han was given a sentence of six years and senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, five years and six months. Serina Wee, former finance manager for the church, was handed a five-year jail term.
#CHCtrial: City Harvest Church (Official) founder Kong Hee, who has been sentenced to 8 years in prison, walks out of court after his bail was extended to Jan 11. He declined to comment about his sentence. http://bit.ly/1XdnZ9IPosted by Channel NewsAsia Singapore on Friday, 20 November 2015
Bail for all six was extended and the start of their sentence was deferred until Jan 11 next year for them to spend time with their families over Christmas.
In reading out the sentencing, Judge See Kee Oon said that Kong was the most culpable, followed by Tan Ye Peng, Chew Eng Han, Serina Wee and John Lam.
The six were found guilty on Oct 21 on all counts of criminal breach of trust, and falsification of accounts. They were in court on Friday for oral submissions.
The leaders set up sham bond investments to fund the Crossover Project, the church's attempt to reach out to non-Christians by propelling Kong's wife, Ho Yeow Sun, to pop stardom. Sun Ho, as she is commonly known, was not in court on Friday.
In court, the defence argued that the co-accused were merely following orders and acting in the interests of the church, and thus their sentences should be calibrated.
The prosecution team consisting of DPPs Mavis Chionh, Tan Kiat Pheng, Christopher Ong, Joel Chen, Jeremy Yeo and Eugene Sng submitted that "each of the accused persons played their respective roles in a conspiracy with intent to cause wrongful loss to CHC and to defraud the auditors".
"They did not merely wait passively for Kong to instruct them to carry out each specific act and deception needed to drive the conspiracy forward. They took their own initiative to deceive and mislead the trusting members of CHC where necessary, and cannot escape responsibility for those acts," said the prosecution.
After hearing the submissions from both sides, Judge See passed the sentence at 3pm.
"For us ex-members, we'll leave it to the judge. We have to respect the Honour's decision. As what the prosecutor says, we need to do it right now because it will have a great repercussion on other mega churches on what and what cannot be done," said a man who identified himself as a former City Harvest member but declined to be named.
After the sentencing, Sharon Tan's lawyer Paul Seah said that he and his client will look at the judge's comments and decide what to do next.
Tan Ye Peng's lawyer N Sreenivasan said that it has been a "trying time" for his client and that Tan "needs to pray, reflect and discern".
"STAGGERING" AMOUNT MISAPPROPRIATED
This case involves the “largest amount of charity funds ever misappropriated in Singapore’s legal history”, the prosecution declared on Friday, in urging the court to impose stiff sentences on the six City Harvest Church leaders for mishandling the "staggering" amount of S$50 million.
In seeking jail terms of between five to 12 years for each of the accused, the prosecution said their overarching consideration was that of general deterrence in order to send a clear message that those entrusted with charity funds “must deal with them honestly” or face severe punishment.
The prosecution also pointed out that it is important to “restore any public confidence that may have been lost in the charity sector” as a result of the present long-running and high-profile case. “The charity sector … depends on public confidence to ensure that worthy causes and charitable works continue to be supported financially,” prosecutors said.
The six accused “abused the exceptional trust and faith” placed in them by CHC’s members, repeatedly misleading them, added the prosecution. Kong’s was a position of “implicit trust”, and he had “pre-eminence” within the leadership of CHC. So much so that “the entire church and its related entities” took his direction, the prosecution said, but Kong “brazenly and manipulatively” betrayed this trust “for the purposes of furthering a criminal conspiracy”, they argued.
The prosecution also pointed out that the co-accused “were not just blind followers … they were both trusted and trusting”, pointing to the plan initiated and executed by Tan Ye Peng, Chew Eng Han, Serina Wee and Sharon Tan on their own accord and without any consultation with Kong.
Prosecutors called the actions of the six “particularly sophisticated, carefully planned and coordinated”. “The transactions were all disguised as legitimate commercial transactions … making their sham inherently difficult to detect,” the prosecution told the court, pointing to the manipulation or fabrication of minutes of meetings to suit the needs of the accused.
The prosecution cited several precedents to support their submissions on the appropriate sentences for the six, however “none of the precedents … are on all fours with the present facts”, they admitted, saying that the circumstances in which the six committed the offences are unique and unprecedented.
To support their push for up to 11 to 12 years' jail for the likes of Kong, the prosecution reiterated that “the misappropriation of (a) charity’s funds by its most senior officers would necessarily lead to public disquiet and a loss of confidence in the charity sector as a whole”.
Judge See acknowledged the incomparable nature of the case, particularly “the lack of any personal wrongful gain, any motive of self-interest or enrichment, and the absence of an intent to cause permanent loss and return of the monies to CHC”.
CO-ACCUSED FOLLOWED SPIRITUAL LEADER KONG: JUDGE
Judge See did caveat this by saying in his view, the accused did not return the monies out of genuine remorse, but did so out of fear that the sham transactions might be discovered. However the judge said “it remains relevant that CHC ultimately suffered no loss”.
The judge said he had characterised the actions of the six “as being akin to a ‘temporary loan’ arrangement which was unlawful as they were effectively putting CHC’s funds into their own hands to use as they needed”, despite them being “plainly not authorised” to do so.
In handing down the harshest sentence to Kong, Judge See said that Kong’s co-accused were “ultimately following the vision and direction (of their) spiritual leader whom they had deferred to and become accustomed to trusting”. The judge also called Kong the “prime mover” and “driving force” behind the Crossover Project.
Lawyers for Kong, Wee, Lam, and the two Tans said their clients had not yet decided whether to file a notice of appeal, leaving Chew the sole accused who has confirmed his intention to appeal. The latest date for the accused to file a notice of appeal is Dec 2.
While he declined to speak to the media after the sentence was handed down, Kong later posted a note on Facebook saying he is studying the judgement with his lawyers. He added that with the wrap of the trial, the "season of pain and turmoil for the church should soon come to an end".
Kong Hee Facebook note
After the sentencing, the church also posted a note on Facebook thanking members for showing unity and strength, and particularly in the last few "extremely difficult months".
"Let us continue to pray for the six and their families as they prepare for this next step in the legal process," said a note signed by two pastors and Sun Ho.
The Commissioner of Charities meantime said it would resume regulatory actions to remove the convicted members of the church from positions of executive power in the charity.