SINGAPORE - The long-running legal battle over the misuse of City Harvest Church (CHC) funds on Wednesday (Oct 21) resulted in all six accused being convicted of multimillion-dollar fraud.
Some of them, including the church's charismatic 51-year-old founder Kong Hee, were found guilty of secretly funnelling $24 million of church funds into sham investments to bankroll the controversial pop music career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun. And some were guilty of devising plans to use a further $26 million to cover these tracks.
In a courtroom packed with close to 70 church supporters, Judge See Kee Oon ruled that the six had "acted dishonestly" and were involved in conspiracies to misuse church building funds for the Crossover Project - a CHC mission to evangelise through Ms Ho's music. They also defrauded auditors by falsifying accounts.
"Each of them participated and functioned in their own way as crucial cogs in the machinery," said Judge See, who singled out Kong as the spiritual leader the other defendants had trusted.
They are: former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55; former CHC finance managers Serina Wee, 38, and Sharon Tan, 40; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 42; and former CHC finance committee member John Lam, 47.
The mammoth trial has captured public attention as tales of extravagant spending by Kong and his wife emerged along with details of an intricate financial fraud.
After 140 days of trial proceedings which began in May 2013, all six arrived in court to hear the verdict in good spirits with their families in tow. Minutes before the hearing began, they were chatting and joking with each other in the dock.
Chew told The Straits Times he was at peace and unafraid, while Tan Ye Peng flashed a thumbs up sign at the defence lawyers.
Some of the church's supporters had queued overnight for a coveted pass into the courtroom, and about 60 people who did not manage to get a ticket were outside, eyes glued to their phones for updates.
WHY IT MATTERS: The City Harvest Church case
But moments after Judge See started delivering his verdict, the mood darkened. Smiles faded and the six stared glumly ahead.
The judge addressed them in sequence, pronouncing the six guilty of all charges - which involved varying counts of criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts.
Most of them hung their heads low in the dock. Sharon Tan and Wee were seen wiping away tears.
After the hearing, Senior Counsels Edwin Tong, Andre Maniam and N. Sreenivasan - lawyers for Kong, Wee and Tan Ye Peng, respectively - said it was still "too early" to say whether or not their clients would appeal.
Lawyers on both sides are due back in court on Nov 20 to deliver oral submissions on sentencing.
A maximum cumulative sentence of 20 years can be imposed on the accused, in addition to a fine.
In a statement released by the church, Kong's wife Ho, who is also CHC's executive director, said: "We have placed our faith in God and trust that whatever the outcome, He will use it for our good."
Some of those found guilty stuck to their guns. "It's been a very long trial, and someone prudent would have been prepared for conviction. But, of course, we were always believing in our acquittal," said Lam.
Chew said: "I still believe in justice, that the innocent will be set free. And I believe I am innocent."
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