City Harvest trial: Ho's music career a genuine investment: Defendants' lawyers

Former City Harvest Church finance manager Serina Wee.
Former City Harvest Church finance manager Serina Wee.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW
City Harvest Church deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng.
City Harvest Church deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

Putting church money into the music career of Ms Ho Yeow Sun was a genuine investment and City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders had every right to do so.

That was the argument put forth by the lawyers of both former CHC finance manager Serina Wee, 39, and CHC deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 43, at their appeal hearing in the High Court yesterday.

In October last year, Wee and Tan were among six CHC leaders convicted of misappropriating millions in church funds to fuel the pop music career of Ms Ho - the wife of CHC founder Kong Hee - in a church mission known as the Crossover Project.

The court found that the six CHC leaders - including Kong - had invested $24 million from CHC's building fund in bogus bonds used to fund the Crossover Project.

Later, another $26 million was used to cover up the initial misdeed.

Wee and Tan were the last two CHC leaders to present their cases. All six are appealing against their convictions and sentences. The prosecution, for its part, is asking for longer sentences.

Said Wee's lawyer, Senior Counsel Andre Maniam: "My client did not think she was doing anything wrong - if there was an element of financial return, it was an investment."

The lower court had ruled that the bonds were not a genuine investment - in part because it found that the proceeds from these financial instruments were, in fact, controlled by the CHC leaders.

Mr Maniam told the court that there was nothing wrong with the investments having a dual purpose of both funding Ms Ho's music career and having an expectation of a financial return.

"(Wee's) point is (they) are not expensing the building fund for missions but also investing it," said Mr Maniam.

He had earlier referenced album sales projections for Ms Ho's United States album that showed profits would be made.

However, the album was never launched in the end - Kong told the court previously this was because of ongoing investigations in 2010.

Dressed in a black blouse and skirt, Wee, like the other accused, sat emotionless in the dock.

She faces a five-year jail term.

Wee, like the other five CHC leaders, took issue with the lower court's finding that using the building fund to finance the Crossover was a "wrong use" of the money.

Tan's lawyer, Senior Counsel N. Sreenivasan, told the court the Crossover was a mission of the church.

"(Tan's) mind was very, very clear, the Crossover was legitimate and supported by church members," said Mr Sreenivasan.

Tan, Kong's right-hand man, faces a 5½-year jail term.

Mr Sreenivasan said his client had provided "important and relevant information" to both the auditors and lawyers, and they knew that the bond proceeds would ultimately fund the Crossover Project.

Yet, no red flags were raised, he said.

Referring to Tan and the other CHC leaders spending CHC's money on the bonds, Mr Sreenivasan said: "They did not have knowledge that they were not legally entitled to do so."

Having said that, Mr Sreenivasan said Tan had made his peace with whatever finding the court would make.

"At the end of the day, if the court feels that it is legally wrong, then that is their will and (he) will let it be," he said.

The prosecution is expected to respond and present its case today. The appeal will also continue tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Ho's music career a genuine investment: Defendants' lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe