Kong Hee 'key man behind church scandal'

Lawyer Edwin Tong (facing the media, with tie), Kong Hee (behind Mr Tong) and Kong's wife Ho Yeow Sun (behind Kong) leaving the courts on Wednesday. Kong and five others were on Wednesday convicted of misusing some $50 million in City Harvest Church
Lawyer Edwin Tong (facing the media, with tie), Kong Hee (behind Mr Tong) and Kong's wife Ho Yeow Sun (behind Kong) leaving the courts on Wednesday. Kong and five others were on Wednesday convicted of misusing some $50 million in City Harvest Church funds. Judge See Kee Oon's 270-page written judgment identified Kong as a prime mover in the case.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Kong Hee exaggerated the success of his wife's music career, was in control of the supposedly independent firm that managed her, and played a key part in misleading auditors and lawyers.

And critically, it was his approval and guidance that was sought by his five accomplices in their misuse of City Harvest Church (CHC) funds.

This was what Judge See Kee Oon said of Kong, the church's founder, in his 270-page written judgment obtained by The Straits Times yesterday - making clear that it was the 51-year-old who was first and foremost behind the scandal.

On Wednesday, the judge convicted Kong, former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, former CHC finance managers Serina Wee and Sharon Tan, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, and former CHC finance committee member John Lam of misusing some $50 million in church funds. Of this amount, some $24 million was invested in sham bonds to bankroll Ms Ho Yeow Sun's pop music career, as part of the Crossover project - Kong's brainchild to spread his church's message through popular culture.

WHY IT MATTERS: The City Harvest Church case

The project was initially funded directly by the church, but that all changed in January 2003 when church member Roland Poon alleged that the church's building fund had been used to finance Ms Ho's burgeoning music career.

CLAIMS AND CONTRADICTIONS

Kong Hee maintains that he is a pastor and not an expert in legality. But one does not need to be an expert in legality to appreciate certain fundamental aspects of honesty, truth and integrity.

JUDGE SEE KEE OON, who in his written judgment highlighted several contradictions between Kong Hee's testimony and the facts

Mr Poon would go on to retract the allegations and apologise.

At the time, the judge pointed out, Kong had "emphatically" insisted that no church funds were ever used - in his own words "not a single cent" - to support his wife's music career and boost her sales.

"But this is again flatly contradicted by the evidence that emerged at the trial," wrote the judge, one of several contradictions he highlighted between Kong's testimony and the facts.

To avoid misconceptions that Ms Ho's music career was "not real" and CHC money was spent in a "cavalier and flippant" manner to promote it, it was Kong who decided on the need to be discreet on how the church went about funding the Crossover. "Kong Hee took overall charge of the Crossover and all matters pertaining to the budgeting and financing of the project came under his supervision and instruction," wrote the judge.

Xtron was set up by three of the accused to manage Ms Ho. It had its own directors, but it was Kong alone who made decisions regarding his wife's music career and how much to spend. Kong's claim that he had "significant influence" over Xtron but not control over it was a matter of semantics, ruled the judge. "The essential point is simply that he never believed that the Xtron directors presented any impediment to his ability to do what he wished with Xtron."

  • Difficult time, says Kong Hee on Facebook

  • In his first public comments since he was convicted of multimillion-dollar fraud, City Harvest Church senior pastor Kong Hee said yesterday: "This is a difficult time for me, and especially for my family, just as it is for the other co-accused persons."

    In a Facebook post addressed to his church and supporters, he added: "As was the case throughout these past three years of court trial, and the earlier two years of investigation, I have put my faith and my all in God, and trust that whatever the outcome, He will use it for good in His time and in His way."

    The court had found Kong guilty of three counts of criminal breach of trust in a long-running court case involving the misuse of $50 million in church funds.

    Kong asked his supporters to continue praying for him and those involved in the trial.

    "The days and steps ahead are challenging, but with God's grace and love, I have no fear. The Lord Jesus, my Good Shepherd, will lead and guide. I will obey, I will follow, by faith," said Kong.

    Kong's lawyer, Senior Counsel Edwin Tong, told reporters on Wednesday that they needed to study the written grounds of decision before deciding whether or not to appeal.

    Danson Cheong

And that included control of the money Xtron received when the church "invested" millions into bonds issued by the firm. The judge agreed with the prosecution that the bonds were a sham and simply a way through which CHC could fund Ms Ho's pop music.

"I am satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Kong Hee did not believe that the Xtron bonds were genuine investments," he wrote.

He also dismissed Kong's defence that he regularly consulted auditors and lawyers, with no red flags raised. "But there was an important gap in their knowledge, which was the true nature of the relationship between CHC and Xtron." He ruled that Kong contributed in misleading auditors.

Judge See noted that Kong would not have been able to act alone, and "orchestrate, monitor and manage every move". His five accomplices had also knowingly committed the crimes and were "willing and eager" to be led by Kong, he wrote.

But he reserved his strongest words for the church founder, who was found guilty of three counts of criminal breach of trust.

He described Kong as having a tendency to embellish or exaggerate. The judge said Kong could not have been ignorant that his wife did not actually appear on "official" Chinese government-issued first day covers, or sing the official Special Olympics theme song - all of which he claimed she did.

And as to Kong's claims that he was not an expert in legal matters, Judge See said one did not have to be such an expert "to appreciate certain fundamental aspects of honesty, truth and integrity".

The judge will hand down sentences on Nov 20 at the earliest.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 23, 2015, with the headline 'Kong Hee 'key man behind church scandal''. Print Edition | Subscribe