City Harvest appeal: 5 key questions about the judgment

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SINGAPORE - All six accused in the marathon City Harvest Church (CHC) case had their jail sentences reduced on Friday (April 7).

The church's founder and senior pastor Kong Hee, 52, received the biggest reduction from eight years to three years and six months.

This comes after a three-judge panel, in a split decision, allowed their appeals against the conviction and found them guilty of a less serious charge of criminal breach of trust (CBT), though the convictions on falsification of accounts were upheld.

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Below are answers to five key questions, based on the court and the 304-page written judgment:

1. Why were the CBT charges reduced?

The court, by majority, found that Kong, CHC deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44, and former CHC finance committee member John Lam, 49, were not entrusted with dominion over the CHC's funds as "in the way of his business of agents".

With this, the aggravated charge of CBT under Section 409 of the Penal Code was reduced to a simpler CBT charge under Section 406. Section 409 is CBT by public servant, or by banker, merchant, or agent.

While they held important positions in the church, the court was not satisfied that they were acting as "a professional agent", who offers "his agency services to the community at large and from which he makes his living". This is unlike a banker, a broker or a lawyer.

In addition, the relationship between the three and the property they were entrusted with is an internal one, the court said. This "stands in stark contrast" to the external relationship an agent would share with a customer.

2. Why were their sentences reduced?

The lesser charge of CBT had a "significant impact" in the reduction of the sentences, as the maximum punishments of the two are "markedly different", the court said.

The maximum jail terms under Section 406 are less than half that for those under Section 409, which also carries the life imprisonment sentence.

Despite the huge sum of about $50 million involved, a number of mitigating factors were also taken into account for sentencing, including that there was no personal gain by the six and that they acted in what they considered to be the best interests of the church.

"Their fault lies in adopting the wrong means," the court said.

3. Why were the account falsification charges upheld?

These charges were related to entries recorded in the church's accounts in October and early November 2009 to show that the sham bonds purchased by the church's building funds were redeemed.

The court held that the accused intended to defraud as they knew that the various transactions were meant to create false appearances.

4. What did judges say about Kong Hee?

Kong's role was that of "spiritual leader" of the five others, providing the "overall direction and moral assurance for their actions", the court said.

He was also one of the main players - if not the main one - who had directed and influenced the others to using the church's Building Fund to purchase sham bonds, even if he did not directly participate in redeeming them.

Thus, his overall culpability and criminality are the greatest among the six.

5. What did the differing judge say?

Justice Chan Seng Onn had expressed reservations about the mitigating factors, including the fact that the transactions had benefited Kong and his wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, as well as financial loss to the church.

The funds misappropriated were channelled to the Crossover Project, which was the church's mission to evangelise using Ms Ho's pop music.

In differing from Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice Woo Bih Li, he had called for a dismissal of both the six accused and prosecution's appeals.

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