SINGAPORE - A three-judge panel on Friday morning (April 7) reduced the jail sentences for all six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders who were convicted of criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts in a high-profile case involving the misuse of millions of dollars of church money.
Church founder Kong Hee. 52, who was handed an eight-year jail term in November 2015, will spend 3½ years behind bars.
The other five - deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44; former CHC finance managers Serina Wee, 40, and Sharon Tan, 41; former CHC finance committee member John Lam, 49; and former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 56 - also had their jail terms reduced after the court, in a split decision, allowed their appeals against conviction and found them guilty of a less serious charge of criminal breach of trust.
The six were found guilty in 2015 after a marathon 142-day trial that started in 2013.
The reduced sentences are:
Tan Ye Peng: From 5½ years' jail to three years and two months.
Chew: From six years to three years and four months.
Wee: From five years to 2½ years.
Lam: From three years to 1½ years.
Sharon Tan: From 21 months to seven months.
All six requested for deferment before they start their jail terms. Sharon Tan requested for a two-month deferment. The rest, including Kong who said he wanted to spend Easter with his family, asked for a two-week deferment.
They had channelled $24 million from CHC's building fund into sham bonds in music production company Xtron and glass-maker Firna. They used the money to fund the singing career of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, as part of the Crossover Project, a church mission which they said was to evangelise through Ms Ho's music.
Later, another $26 million was used to cover up the sham bond investments.
Delivering their ruling, the court explained why the majority - two out of the three judges - reduced the criminal breach of trust charges.
All the leaders were convicted of engaging in a conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust by an agent, under Section 409 of the Penal Code.
However, the majority said these charges are not made out. It found that the accused as directors did not fall within the provision.
"In considering whether a director falls within the scope of s 409 of the Penal Code, the crucial question is whether he may be said to be acting in the way of his business as an agent. We do not think so," said Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin.
"While a director undoubtedly holds an important position in a company or organisation, it cannot be said that a person by becoming a director has offered his services as an agent to the community at large or that he makes his living as an agent.
"The appellants should only have been convicted of the offence of criminal breach of trust simpliciter under s 406 of the Penal Code," he said.
The dissenting judge, Justice Chan Seng Onn, did not agree.
Under the law, the maximum imprisonment under section 406 is less than half of the maximum under section 409.
In sentencing, the judges said it is a situation which involved no personal gain on the appellants' part. They believed that their acts, especially in sham investments, would advance the interest of the church. They accepted that the Crossover project was genuinely endorsed by the church, "even if it was not 100 per cent".
"None of the appellants could be said to have benefited, and their fault lies in adopting the wrong means," said the judges. Kong, fingered as the key man behind the scandal, got the heaviest sentence.
The judges agreed that his overall culpability is the greatest and he provided the overall direction and moral assurance. He also instilled the confidence in the Crossover Project and his wife's success in the US.
He was one of the main players if not the main player who set the direction in the sham charges, said the judges. His role as the spiritual leader and the breach of trust should be reflected in his sentence, they added.
His lawyer Edwin Tong told reporters: "He (Kong) has told me that he is disappointed with the outcome in terms of the conviction not being overturned." But he appreciates that the judges said they were acting in the interest of the church, he added.
In November 2015, the six were handed jail terms ranging from 21 months to eight years in what prosecutors called the largest case of misuse of charitable funds in Singapore history.
The prosecution had appealed for longer jail terms. The six had asked for their convictions to be overturned and for shorter jail terms.
The appeals were heard over five days in September last year.
The court - Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn - delivered their verdict in a packed courtroom. Members of the public had started queueing as early as 1am on Friday to get a seat. Ms Ho, whose racy music videos and lavish lifestyle had attracted controversy, was not in court.