SINGAPORE: In a split decision on Friday (Apr 7), the High Court cut City Harvest Church’s pastor Kong Hee’s eight-year jail term to three-and-a-half years, along with those of five others convicted of misappropriating about S$50 million of church funds.
Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice Woo Bih Li, in the majority, convicted Kong and five accomplices of reduced charges, resulting in significantly reduced sentences for the six. Justice Chan Seng Onn dissented.
Former fund manager Chew Eng Han had his six-year sentence lowered to three years and four months, while deputy pastor Tan Ye Peng had his original five-and-a-half-year sentencecut to three years and two months.
Former finance manager Serina Wee Gek Yin's original five-year sentence was halved to two years and six months, and former finance committee member John Lam Leng Hung's three-year sentencewas similarly halved to one year and six months.
Former finance manager Sharon Tan Shao Yuen had her 21-month jail sentencereduced to seven months.
Friday's hearing was the culmination of a five-day appeal heard in September last year by a three-judge panel, including Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn.
After the revised sentences were announced, Kong, Lam, Chew, Wee and Tan Ye Peng all asked for their sentences to start after two weeks, and the court agreed.
Sharon Tan asked to defer the start of her sentence by two months, as her family is relocating overseas in June and she said she wants to help her children adjust to the move. The court agreed to this too.
Friday’s hearing before a packed courtroom took place nearly seven years after an investigation into the megachurch was launched in May 2010.
The six were convicted in 2015 of the most serious form of criminal breach of trust (CBT) - under section 409 of the Penal Code - for misappropriating S$50 million of church funds to secretly bankroll the extravagant lifestyle and budding Hollywood career of Kong’s wife, Sun Ho.
Kong, the “ultimate leader” of the group and “main player” in the conspiracy, “had directed and influenced” Chew, Ye Peng, Wee, Lam and Sharon, “providing them with the overall direction and moral assurance for their actions”, JA Chao and Justice Woo said.
By virtue of their roles in the church - Ye Peng is a pastor, Chew and Lam were on the church’s board, and Wee and Sharon worked in the finance department - they were able to orchestrate a series of illicit transactions and cover ups for two years, between 2007 and 2009.
A LANDMARK FINDING
But in a blow to the prosecution, JA Chao and Justice Woo decided that not all the elements of the aggravated CBT charge had been made out, choosing instead to convict Kong, Chew, Ye Peng, Wee, Lam and Sharon of the least aggravated form of CBT, under section 406 of the Penal Code.
In particular, the decision stemmed from a landmark finding that the six, despite being “directors” of the church entrusted with control over millions in the church’s coffers, cannot fall within section 409 because of the “internal” nature of their relationship with the church.
JA Chao and Justice Woo said “the relationship between a director (who is entrusted with the property) and the company (which is the one entrusting the property) is an internal one and this stands in stark contrast to the external nature of the relationship that (an agent) shares with his customer who entrusts the property with him".
"For these reasons, we do not think that a director who has been entrusted with the property of the company or organisation by virtue of his capacity as director can fall within section 409 of the Penal Code.”
CBT in “external” relationships - such as when a person “offers his services to the community at large” and from which services he makes a living - may fall under the aggravated provision.
"EXCEPTIONAL" MITIGATING FACTORS
JA Chao and Justice Woo said that although the amount involved - S$50 million - is “substantial”, the “exceptional” mitigating factors in the case cannot be ignored, including the fact that the conspiracy involved no personal gain on the part of Kong and his accomplices.
“This case should not be viewed as a sinister and malicious attempt on (their) part(s) to strip the church of funds for their own purposes,” the judges said. “They were acting in what they genuinely believed to be in (the church’s) interests.”
The six resorted to “deceit and lies” to keep the conspiracy under wraps by inflating Ms Ho’s success and falsifying the church’s accounts to fool board members, auditors and lawyers, and lying to the congregation. But, the judges said, “it is telling that a substantial proportion of (the congregation) continued to support (Ms Ho’s career, in the name of evangelism) even after the full facts … were brought to light”.
Speaking to reporters minutes after his wife’s jail term was halved, Wee’s husband said he “(doesn’t) want to think about it”. “The first thing I want to do is talk to my wife and … go back and spend time with my family,” he said.
Sharon Tan, who was in tears, is “disappointed” that she was not acquitted, her lawyer Paul Seah said. “But at least the court recognised (she is the least culpable). Now she wants to spend time with her family and pray.”
Lam said he would accept the verdict and “move on with life”. But Chew seemed less resigned. He told reporters he is seriously considering bringing his case to the Court of Appeal.
Each party to the case has one month to apply for leave to refer a question of law to the apex court.