SINGAPORE - All six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders, including founder Kong Hee, were found guilty of all charges on Wednesday (Oct 21).
Judge See Kee Oon delivered the verdict of the long-running trial.
The six defendants are Kong, 51; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 42; former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55; former CHC finance managers Serina Wee, 38, and Sharon Tan, 40; and former CHC finance committee member John Lam, 47.
They were accused of misappropriating $24 million in church funds, funnelling them into bogus investments that funded the singing career of the pastor's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun. Later, a further $26 million was used to cover their tracks.
The six faced varying counts of criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts. A maximum cumulative sentence of 20 years can be imposed on the accused, in addition to a fine.
Kong and Lam were found guilty of three charges of criminal breach of trust. Tan Ye Peng, Chew and Wee were convicted of six charges of criminal breach of trust and four charges of falsifying accounts. Sharon Tan was found guilty of three charges of criminal breach of trust and four charges of falsifying accounts.
All six posted bail. Sentencing will be at a later date.
Delivering the verdict to a packed courtroom, Judge See said the main background facts were undisputed.
Kong, Tan Ye Peng, Chew and Wee each clearly played a substantial role in conceiving and executing the plan to channel CHC's Building Fund through music firm Xtron, which manages Ms Ho, for the Crossover Project, said the judge. The project was started by the church in 2002 to evangelise through Ms Ho's pop music.
Lam’s role was evidently less substantial, but he had his own part to play as a board member and investment committee member, he said.
"Each of them participated and functioned in their own way as crucial cogs in the machinery," said the judge.
The church leaders knew that the Building Fund was a restricted fund to be used only for specific purposes of building or investment, he noted.
"They claim that they believed the Xtron bonds were genuine investments. They believed the Xtron bonds would bring CHC financial return," he added. "But on my evaluation of the evidence I consider that the prosecution has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they did not hold that belief."
The "perceived success of Crossover was inflated", he said.
While the church leaders claimed that the Xtron bonds were genuine investments which could yield financial returns, their assumption was based on the unrealistic projection that Ms Ho's planned US Crossover album could sell more than 200,000 copies. "This was no more than an optimistic hope. It was definitely not a realistic expectation."
It was "mere excuse" for the church to channel money to Xtron, he said.
Ms Ho's music career was initially funded directly by the church. But in 2003, a church member made public allegations that funds were being misused to bankroll her music projects. The accused subsequently poured millions from the church's Building Fund into Ms Ho's career, through a series of sham bond investments.
Referring to Kong, Tan Ye Peng, Wee and Chew, Judge See said they knew that they had something to hide. The prospect of financial return was not their "genuine concern". "Accused persons all knew that the primary purpose of the bonds (was) to channel money to the Crossover project."
On the church leaders' claim that the bonds were investments, Judge See said: "These are creative labels tacked on in an attempt to strain and stretch the plain meaning of the word 'investment'."
Referring to Chew, Tan Ye Peng, Wee and Sharon Tan, the judge said they all had the intent to defraud.
The weight of the evidence showed that they knew they were dishonest, he noted, even though the accused believed that they had acted in what they considered to be the best interests of CHC, and there was no evidence of any wrongful gain.
"It may be arguable that all of them thought they were not acting dishonestly to cause wrongful loss since no permanent loss was intended, but this was premised on their unquestioning trust and belief in Kong Hee and their confidence that the Crossover would succeed.," said the judge.
"Thus they convinced themselves that it was both morally and legally permissible to temporarily use the money from CHC’s funds when they knew it was not."
Kong's head was bowed low when the verdict was read. Wee appeared to be slightly teary-eyed, and Sharon Tan was seen wiping away tears.
Bail of $1 million was extended to Kong, Tan Ye Peng, Chew and Lam. Bail amount was set at $750,000 for Sharon Tan and Wee. Wee was previously out on bail for $500,000. All six are barred from travelling overseas.
The prosecution will file written submissions by Nov 6. The defence will file mitigation pleas by Nov 13. Oral submissions will be delivered on Nov 20 at 9.30am. Sentencing may take place on Nov 20 or at a later date.
When approached by reporters after the verdict was delivered, Kong declined comment, saying: "No, not now."
Asked if Kong would file an appeal, his lawyer Edwin Tong said: "It's too early to say. The judge will be issuing his grounds today so we will be looking at that first."
Chew told reporters: "I didn't expect it. It's a shock for my family. Of course I will appeal."
Lam, who said he might appeal, said: "I'm obviously disappointed, but 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."
Wee's husband, Mr Kenny Low, told reporters outside the court bail centre: "She's not in the right frame of mind to comment now. We are thankful for the support that we have received.
"As you've heard, the judge said it's not that they are morally wrong or used the money for personal gains. It's too early to say what our next course of action is," he added. "It's been a tough period. The trial has been going for very long. As Christians, we've been praying."
Sharon Tan said she would speak to her lawyer on Thursday (Oct 22) to decide whether she would file an appeal. "I will keep on praying."
Lawyer N. Sreenivasan, who is representing Tan Ye Peng, said he will wait for the grounds of decision before deciding on the next move.
Many City Harvest Church members turned up at the State Court, hours before the start of the closely-watched trial. By 5.30am, close to 130 church members had joined the queue to obtain a pass to the courtroom.
Chew was the first to arrive just before 9am and was closely followed by the others, who all came separately. Kong was accompanied by his wife, Ms Ho.
"I am at peace. I have done nothing wrong, so there's no need to be afraid," Chew told The Straits Times.
The City Harvest trial is one of the longest-running criminal battles in Singapore history. It began in 2013 and has gone on for 140 days in court.
But the long-running saga started much earlier - in 2002 when the church began the Crossover Project to evangelise through Ms Ho's pop music.
At first, Ms Ho's career was funded directly by the church, but in 2003, disgruntled church member Roland Poon made public allegations that funds were being misused to bankroll Ms Ho's career.
He later retracted his statements and apologised, but the uncomfortable scrutiny set off a chain of events that would lead to the six accused being arrested in 2012.
Through a series of sham bond investments, they poured millions from the church's building fund into Ms Ho's music career.
The prosecution said the bonds were a sham because they were effectively conduits for money to be funnelled to Ms Ho and there was no expectation they would be repaid. It also argued that the bond investments were not an authorised use of the building fund.
Both points were hotly contested by the defence.
In 2009, church auditor Sim Guan Seng met church leaders and reportedly said he "doesn't like the bonds" and wanted them off CHC's books.
The prosecution argued this set off an elaborate plan to cover up their initial misuse of funds.
Through a series of transactions involving rental agreements and new investments, fresh funds from the church were used to offset the bonds.
Chew has said in court previously: "But if money goes one round from CHC to Amac, to UA, to Firna and back to CHC, surely there can be no loss to the church."
Amac was the church's fund manager, and Chew was the one who devised the financial instruments.
The defence had pointed to the round-tripping as proof that the church "suffered no wrongful loss".
But the prosecution said the accused had also falsified their accounts with the intention to defraud their auditors.