City Harvest trial: Defence pleads for leniency as sentencing looms

Clockwise from top left: Kong Hee, Tan Ye Peng, Serina Wee, John Lam, Chew Eng Han, Sharon Tan.
Clockwise from top left: Kong Hee, Tan Ye Peng, Serina Wee, John Lam, Chew Eng Han, Sharon Tan.PHOTOS: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - We did not profit. We did what we did for love of the church. We have suffered through the trial.

And church members still stand behind us.

Five of the six found guilty in October of misusing $50 million of City Harvest Church (CHC) funds, including its founder Kong Hee, made similar pleadings to the court, hoping to convince Judge See Kee Oon for lighter sentences than those sought by the prosecution.

The prosecution has recommended a jail sentence of 11 to 12 years each for Kong Hee, 51; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 43; former CHC finance manager Serina Wee, 38; and former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55.

For former CHC finance committee member John Lam, 47, the prosecution asked for a jail sentence of eight to nine years. The lightest sentence of five to six years was reserved for former CHC finance manager Sharon Tan, 40.

Kong Hee's lawyer Edwin Tong was first to present his submissions on sentencing in a packed court room. He argued that the Crossover Project, which church building monies were illegally used to fund, was an integral aspect of CHC's evangelism and was supported by members. The Crossover was meant to use the secular pop music career of Kong Hee's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, to draw people to the church.

 
 
 

"None of the accused benefited from proceeds in wrongful manner," he stressed, urging the judge to look beyond the huge amount involved.

A letter signed by 173 current serving executive members was also presented. "We have no wish to see them go through jail terms," it read. "In their zeal, they've crossed certain boundaries. But for the sake of their young children, we plead for them to be spared jail terms."

Mr Tong also explained how much the trial had taken a toll on Kong Hee. "He's got aged parents who rely on him as the sole provider. They've worried and worry about him. He has two deaf and mute siblings whom he cares for. He has a 10-year-old son who was five when case first came to court. The son has had to see a psychiatrist and was ultimately taken out of school due to the attention the case has received," he said.

Lam's lawyer Kenneth Tan highlighted how his client had never been in trouble with the law before and was simply a volunteer in the church. "John Lam believed he was using the funds for evangelism. He believed it was in the best interest of the church," the lawyer said.

Mr Tan insisted his client's failure was in putting too much trust in his spiritual leaders, like Kong Hee.

"He is just a volunteer who failed to inquire because of misplaced trust," he said.

Sharon Tan's lawyer Paul Seah argued five to six years for her was excessive, given that she did not play a leading role in the conspiracy.

Tan Ye Peng's lawyer N Sreenivasan was next to give his oral submissions on sentencing, and like the others, highlighted how there was no personal gain involved.

He also said that the trial had taken a toll on his family and four young children, and even submitted a medical report to that effect.

After a short break, Wee's lawyer Andre Maniam pressed the point that all that was done was not for personal gain but for the best interest of the church.

 

He cited the case of Buddhist monk Ming Yi case, the former chief executive of Ren Ci hospital, who was eventually sentenced to six months in jail for his role over an unauthorised $50,000 loan to a former aide.

In this case, charity money did not go towards benefiting any third party, which is why the sentence should be less, he argued.

Mr Maniam also talked about Wee's limited role in the scheme, calling her a mere "follower", and not someone who who was a priest or pastor commanding respect in the community.

"Before she was charged, it is safe to say that society did not even know who she was," he said.

"She humbly pleads for leniency."

Chew, who has left the church and is representing himself, was the only one who did not submit any written argument to the court. He only spoke briefly before sitting down. When asked why, Chew told The Straits Times: "I stand by my arguments."

The court will sit again at 3pm.