City Harvest leaders deceived members, auditors, lawyers: DPP

They subverted church's internal governance bodies, used positions of trust to misspend funds, court hears

The six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders deceived church members, auditors and lawyers, and subverted the church's internal governance bodies, the High Court heard yesterday.

They used their positions of trust to misspend millions of dollars in charity funds - the largest amount in such a case in Singapore's legal history - on a pop singer's music career, according to Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong.

He was responding to the arguments against conviction put forth by the six CHC leaders at the centre of the financial scandal.

In October last year, the six were convicted of misappropriating millions in church funds to fuel the pop music career of CHC senior pastor Kong Hee's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, in a church mission known as the Crossover Project.

The court found that they had invested $24 million from CHC's building fund in bogus bonds from music production firm Xtron and glass-maker Firna, and the money was used to fund the Crossover Project. Later, another $26 million was used to cover up the initial misdeed.

The six, including Kong, are appealing against their convictions and sentences - ranging from 21 months' to eight years' jail - while the prosecution is appealing for longer sentences.

DPP Ong said the CHC leaders knew the bonds were "excuses to expend building fund money on (Ms Ho's) music career" and not investments.

Addressing the arguments by the CHC leaders that there was a need for secrecy in carrying out the Crossover Project in order to avoid uncomfortable public scrutiny, DPP Ong said it was strange since the only thing needing to be "secret" was the fact that Ms Ho was funded by the church's building fund - which was "buried so deep that even the auditors don't know about it".

He said it was public knowledge that Ms Ho was "famous pastor Kong Hee's wife", and Kong would come out to preach at the end of her concerts.

"Where is the secrecy in this?" asked DPP Ong, adding that Kong and his conspirators also controlled the bond proceeds, choosing to spend them on the Crossover Project and deciding how and when they would be repaid to the church.

Justice Chan Seng Onn asked: "If I put out the money and eventually pay back to it myself, just sweeping around, playing around it myself, having full control of it, how can you call it an investment?"

DPP Ong replied: "Yes, your Honour, that is exactly our point."

Another issue discussed in court yesterday was whether the offences committed by the six CHC leaders fell under the ambit of Section 409 of the Penal Code that they were charged under.

This is the most aggravated form of criminal breach of trust, and sets out the offence as one committed by a person "in the way of his business as a banker, a merchant, a factor, a broker, an attorney or an agent banker, merchant or agent".

In this context, Justice Chan asked if "the church, as a society, is in the business of courting donations", with agents of the church then being seen as agents carrying out such business. DPP Ong disagreed. But he said Section 409 concerns individuals who "customarily and regularly are entrusted with funds which they are then supposed to take responsibility for".

Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin said that if the elements of Section 409 are not satisfied, the charges could be reduced. Arguments for the appeal will continue today.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2016, with the headline 'City Harvest leaders deceived members, auditors, lawyers: DPP'. Print Edition | Subscribe