Singaporean in farm scam gets five years' jail in HK

He was part of a trio conspiring to defraud a HK-listed firm

A Hong Kong judge made clear having to be "quite alone" in a foreign jail is no reason for a discount when she jailed a convicted Singaporean for five years for his role in a cross-border scam.

Hong Kong High Court Justice Anthea Pang said Singapore national Eric Yee Wenjye should have considered matters like " being a stranger in Hong Kong" before joining the criminal venture.

"(Yee) was a willing participant and anyone joining a criminal agreement intending that to be carried out is a culpable party, irrespective of how significant or less significant the part he intends to play in the actual enterprise," she said in grounds released last month.

Yee, 44, was jointly convicted with two other principal offenders after a jury trial of conspiring to defraud the Hong Kong-listed Natural Dairy (NZ) Holdings, formerly known as China Jin Hui Mining Corporation, and the Hong Kong stock exchange between 2009 and 2010.

Yee was the "frontman" in talks with Natural Dairy to buy 22 farms in New Zealand owned by the cash-strapped CraFarms Group.

The trio misrepresented the financial strength of the farms.

Yee, who presented the CraFarms accounts, was found guilty by the jury through a majority verdict, unlike their unanimous decision on the other two.

Mastermind Chen Keen, 48, a leading figure in the Chinese community in New Zealand, was found guilty of laundering HK$85 million, in addition to the conspiracy to defraud.

Yee acted as the agent for the co-defendant, May Wang, 53, who was contracted to buy the troubled CraFarms before it was due to be sold to Natural Dairy.

Chen and Wang were guilty of not disclosing the actual value of CraFarms to shareholders or the stock exchange. They received heavier jail terms of seven years and nine months, and eight years and three months each.

Yee came into the picture at a later stage and was not as extensively involved. Justice Pang said: "Whether the jury convicted him because of the concealment of the true financial information, or on the basis of the provision of false accounts, or both, his role is, relatively speaking, not as major as that of the first or second accused."

Yee's lawyer David Khosa argued Yee's role was confined to accounting matters and he merely followed instructions in preparing the accounts, which formed just one aspect of the deal. He added there was no loss caused to anybody and Yee made no personal gain.

But Justice Pang found Yee joined the conspiracy at a critical time " when the financial due diligence was being carried out".

Yee, who did his degree in New Zealand and lived there, worked in various financial institutions and later set up his own business as a loan adviser.

Justice Pang jailed him for five years on each of the two charges, the terms to run concurrently.

The cases follow a joint probe by New Zealand's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption. SFO began its probe in 2010 when Natural Dairy's bid to buy CraFarms was then being assessed by the Overseas Investment Office.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2016, with the headline 'S'porean in farm scam gets five years' jail in HK'. Subscribe