Charities watchdog clears air on bid to remove City Harvest leaders

The Commissioner of Charities (COC) on Wednesday responded to City Harvest supporters who have hit out at the bid to remove eight church members, including founder Kong Hee, from office.

The commissioner's office explained that there are avenues available to each of the eight to have their cases heard.

Supporters had questioned the COC's decision on Tuesday to get the eight removed from office, pointing out that his office's report on supposed mismanagement at the church is yet to be made public.

They also asked how the COC can say his action is independent from the criminal proceedings that have been brought against six of the eight. This is especially since the Attorney-General is the one who gives consent to remove them from office, and is also the one who has charged them.

Kong and five others will face a trial next month for allegedly embezzling more than $50 million from their parish.

In a response to The Straits Times, the Attorney-General's Chambers (AGC) clarified that the two sets of proceedings served different objectives.

While one is about safeguarding the assets of the charity, the other is about enforcing criminal laws. "The issues are not identical, and the threshold for proof is different," its spokesman said.

The COC had received complaints in 2010 that the church had allegedly misused funds. The Commercial Affairs Department was also informed. Both agencies conducted their own probes after records were seized from the church's office.

Last year, the COC suspended nine church members, including Kong and his wife Ho Yeow Sun, for a year. The COC had found, among other things, that at least $23 million had allegedly been used to finance Ms Ho's music career, without the knowledge of church members.

In December, the COC made an offer to the nine to voluntarily extend their suspension till six months after the criminal trial, which begins on May 15, is over.

The offer was conditional on all nine being on board. But by last month, only five agreed.

This was why the COC on Tuesday acted to remove eight of the church leaders from their positions. Ms Ho was not included as there was not enough evidence showing she was responsible for or privy to what had happened.

Some have questioned why the COC had enough grounds to suspend Ms Ho, but not enough to remove her.

The commissioner's office explained that under the Charities Act, the conditions for removal are more stringent than that for suspension.

Yesterday, the COC also made it clear that his office had actually extended the deadline twice for the nine to say "yes" to having their suspensions lengthened.

The first time, eight, including Kong and Ms Ho, agreed.

The COC explained it was prepared to hold off further "regulatory action" despite one person not agreeing, and proceed with extending the suspension for the rest.

But last month, when it asked the eight to confirm their consent in writing, only five did.

Kong and Ms Ho were not among them.

"The COC could not extend the suspension of just these five individuals and initiate removal proceeding on the others. This is because the individual cases are linked, and adverse findings may be made which may indirectly affect or implicate those who are not part of the removal process," said the COC's statement yesterday.

In his response yesterday, Kong said that after initially agreeing to extending his suspension, the COC revised the terms of the original offer.

"Given that the premise for the COC's offer had changed, and the fact that Sun and I had already agreed to the voluntary suspension on the COC's original terms in February 2013, we did not see any reason to consent again to the revised offer," he said.

"As I stated in my earlier statement, we informed the COC that we had already agreed to the voluntary suspension on the COC's terms."

dawntan@sph.com.sg

SEE HOME