City Harvest warned over fund raising for six accused

At issue is a form seeking donations as 'personal gift' for leaders charged

City Harvest Church has been warned by the Commissioner of Charities (COC) about its employees' efforts to raise funds to pay the legal fees of its leaders facing criminal charges in court.

At issue is a donation form which surfaced this month seeking funds as a "personal gift" to the six people charged so far.

Dated Aug 6, the form states that the donations would be deposited into the bank accounts of two City Harvest Church pastors.

In response to The Straits Times' queries, COC said that it had informed the church that neither it nor its employees may be involved in raising funds for the legal expenses for the accused.

The commissioner also said that it had earlier issued a restriction order to the church's board to stop them from using church funds for the same reason.

City Harvest Church, however, said that the donation form - which had been circulated as recently as last week - was no longer being used.

It said the pastors involved have relinquished their roles in the effort, and added that the church was unaware of any new fund-raising efforts that are currently taking place.

Employees from the church have mounted fund-raising efforts ever since their church leaders were charged in June this year.

At its annual general meeting on July 29, a staff member, Ms Dawn Lee, had announced her e-mail address to executive members present, adding that whoever wanted to donate to a legal fund should contact her.

The issue of funds has been a source of anxiety for church members who have expressed their concern for their leaders who are facing what will likely be a multi-million dollar trial.

All the accused, except for church founder Kong Hee, 47, have hired Senior Counsels - the most elite of lawyers - to represent them in court.

The lawyers are likely to cost at least $1 million each.

Besides Kong, the others charged in the case are his deputy Tan Ye Peng, 39; church finance manager Sharon Tan, 36; church investment manager Chew Eng Han, 52; former church finance manager Serina Wee, 35; and church management board member John Lam Leng Hung, 44.

Together, the six are alleged to have cheated the church of millions in church funds.

The state believes they misused $24 million to bankroll the music career of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, and then took another $26 million to cover their tracks.

The six people will have their cases mentioned in court again next week.

A trial date has not been set yet.

Members who received the donation form told The Straits Times that it was given to them during a zone meeting last week.

Others said they received the form after approaching Ms Lee to express their interest in contributing to the fund.

Zone meetings are combined meetings for cell groups that are overseen by a church pastor.

It is understood that the target sum to be raised may be $15 million - or, $2.5 million for each of the accused.

It was also mentioned at the meeting that the legal fees of all its leaders could be taken care of if enough working adults in the church gave $2,000 each - meaning, 7,500 individual donations.

This fund-raising effort comes after the church's executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain shot down four motions during the Annual General Meeting to channel church funds towards paying the legal fees of the accused.

He told them that according to COC regulations, the church was not allowed to endorse any mass demonstrations by members, but that individual members were free to raise funds on their own.

According to the form, the donations would be split equally among the six defendants.

Any remainder sum would be automatically donated to the City Harvest General Fund, used for general expenses of the church.

It also said that it may be used to pay for the legal fees of any other persons charged for being involved in the police investigations that started in 2010.

jennanid@sph.com.sg

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