5 things to know about the City Harvest trial
Published on Jul 15, 2014 12:12 PM
1. What is it about?
In a few words: Music and money. Prosecutors believe church founder Kong Hee and five others misused about $50 million of the church's money between January 2007 and October 2009.
2. Where does the music part come in?
$24 million allegedly went to support Kong's wife Ms Ho Yeow Sun's pop music career. Another $26.6 million was used to cover up the first amount through concocted deals, say prosecutors.
Defence lawyers, however, say Ms Ho's music was widely accepted within the church as a means to evangelise, so "church money was used for church purposes".
They also say that, contrary to prosecution claims, the $26.6 million was used to meet legitimate church needs.
Prosecutors believe a rental payment from the church, for example, was contrived by the accused to disguise the first misused sum, while the defence says the church needed a place for its services.
Revelations about Ms Ho’s China Wine single surfaced last August when Kong took the stand. Kong admitted he and his wife were uncomfortable when Grammy-winning artist Wyclef Jean switched her to a fusion of Asian music and reggae because her previous songs sounded too “white”. Jean left the project in 2008 after negotiations over his asking price broke down.
3. So what's going on with the trial now?
Three of the six accused – Kong, longtime board member John Lam, and finance manager Sharon Tan – have already taken the stand.
Former investment manager Chew Eng Han took to the witness box on Jan 26; former church finance manager Serina Wee and management board vice-president Tan Ye Peng are likely to give their testimonies after him. Hearing dates have been set till mid-June.
Ms Ho may also testify as she has been called as a defence witnesses by Chew. Chew also faces a lawsuit from the church for about $21 million that his investment firm, Amac Capital Partners, allegedly owes it.
4. What evidence has been presented so far?
Prosecutors have built their case partly on a mass of e-mails and text messages written by Kong and the others. These, the prosecutors believe, show the accused intended to defraud the church and deceive its auditors.
The paper trail, for example, allegedly shows how several of the accused essentially conspired with the directors of two church-friendly companies to offer sham investments to the church. This was so they could access the money in the church's Building Fund, which had restricted uses, say prosecutors.
The defence lawyers say the prosecutors misinterpreted the communications or took them out of context.
5. Did anything scandalous happen during the trial?
Not scandalous, exactly, but there has been plenty of drama.
One of the accused, former church investment manager Chew Eng Han, quit City Harvest in June 2013 and has been keeping apart from the others in court. He has also discharged his lawyer and is now defending himself.
He wrote in a blog post that he had been tolerating "betrayal, slander, ingratitude, denial and lies, manipulation and control, greed, pride, hypocrisy, abuse of authority, practice of favoritism and different standards".
The case has also thrown a spotlight on the church's audit firm Baker Tilly TFW. It approved audit reports that included the alleged sham transactions, although employees who took the stand said information had been kept from them.
One particularly awkward moment occurred when audit manager Foong Ai Fang testified. Although she was the one responsible for the City Harvest audits' field work, she said she had no idea her brother Foong Daw Ching - the firm's former managing partner - met several of the accused and gave them advice.
Former finance manager Serina Wee, who is in the dock, has also emerged as the trial's style icon. Wee recently opened a blogshop selling clothes with long-time friend and church finance manager Sharon Tan, who is also on trial.
Emotions ran high during Tan's 14 days on the stand. Tan, who is accused of falsifying minutes of a board meeting in an attempt to deceive the auditors, cried on three occasions during her testimony.