ONE of the ministry leaders accused of conspiring to cheat City Harvest Church of more than $50 million is applying to hire a Queen's Counsel (QC) - the most elite of British lawyers - to represent him here.
Chew Eng Han, 52, the church's investment manager, told The Straits Times he is taking the unusual move because he could not find a senior counsel to represent him.
The mega church's senior pastor Kong Hee and five other key ministry leaders, including Chew, were arrested and charged in June with conspiring to cheat the church of millions of dollars.
They are alleged to have funnelled $24 million into sham bond investments to further the music career of Kong's pop singer wife, Ho Yeow Sun.
They are also alleged to have misappropriated a further $26.6 million in church funds to cover up the first amount.
QCs are specially appointed senior barristers recognised for their specialised skills and expertise.
"I've gone through the list of senior counsel many times, and most of them can't do it for various reasons," Chew said. He added that he wanted a lawyer who was an elite in his profession and who had experience in cases of this nature, so as to not short-change himself, as he was central to the court case as the church's investment manager.
"This is the least I need to do for my family, to get the best legal representation to clear my name and to establish my innocence," he said.
Chew, deputy pastor Tan Ye Peng, 39, church finance manager Sharon Tan, 36, and former finance manager Serina Wee, 35, face between seven and 10 charges of criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts. Kong, 47, and former church management board member John Lam Leng Hung, 44, each face three charges of criminal breach of trust.
With the exception of Kong, who will be represented by MP Edwin Tong, all the other accused have hired senior counsel (SC) to represent them.
Chew's move to get a QC comes after the firm he originally hired, Rajah and Tann, was discharged from representing him in court after the last pre-trial conference in October.
It is understood this decision was made by the firm to avoid any possible conflict in the case, as Rajah and Tann was one of the firms involving in drawing up the original documents for the bond investments. Chew said the other firm involved was Drew and Napier.
Chew was to have been represented by Senior Counsel Francis Xavier, who is overseas and could not be reached for comment. Ms Tan Wen Hsien, a senior associate at Rajah and Tann, confirmed that the firm was no longer representing him.
In addition to the law firms involved in drawing up the bond documents, those representing the other defendants decided they could not represent more than one to avoid a potential conflict of interest, said Chew.
There are 65 SCs in Singapore, 10 of whom are in firms that were involved in drawing up the bond documents and 13 of whom are in firms that are representing the other accused. Another 22 of them are professors or judges or are attached to the Attorney-General's Chambers.
Chew said he had already met a QC to represent him, but declined to reveal his name. He said he plans to submit his application early next month. A hearing will then be held to determine if a QC can be admitted for the case.
Before the law was changed in April, the main consideration for allowing a QC was whether the case was complex enough to justify one. This is now only one of several considerations. A senior member of the law profession, who declined to be named, said Chew has a "strong argument" for getting a QC. "One of the things the court can take into consideration is equality in terms of representation, as almost all the other defendants are represented by SCs. The complexity of the case does appear to indicate that you do need an SC. If he feels he needs an SC to represent him but can't find one because they are either conflicted or already engaged by someone else, I think it would be a relevant consideration."
The senior lawyer added that it is mandatory for the application for a QC to be served on the Attorney-General's Chambers and the Law Society, which will both have the option of giving their views on the matter during the hearing. The ultimate decision, however, lies with the court.
Representatives for each of the accused will meet in court today for a pre-trial conference. All six have indicated that they are likely to plead not guilty and will claim trial.