SOURCE: The Straits Times
CITY Harvest Church’s Kong Hee and four others were charged yesterday with allegedly siphoning church money, amid fresh revelations that they conspired to cheat the church of over $50 million.
It emerged yesterday that $26.6 million was allegedly used to cover up an initial $24 million which they had taken from the church’s building fund and put into sham investments.
These investments in turn were actually being used to finance the music career of Kong’s wife Ho Yeow Sun.
Kong, 47, who showed up at the Subordinate Courts holding Ms Ho’s hand and surrounded by a phalanx of supporters, faces three counts of committing criminal breach of trust as an agent.
If found guilty, he could be jailed for life.
He and the other four accused are to return to court on July 25. All five posted bail of $500,000 each, with Kong’s bail put up by his 42-year-old wife’s parents. The passports of the five charged have been impounded.
Their appearance in court yesterday came a day after the Commercial Affairs Department swooped in on them in their homes early on Tuesday morning, wrapping up a two-year probe.
On the same day, the Commissioner of Charities revealed that financial irregularities amounting to at least $23 million had been discovered and eight church members, including the five, had been suspended.
Yesterday, court documents showed that this alleged conspiracy was carried out through bond investments in two companies.
These were Ms Ho’s artist management firm Xtron Productions, and PT The First National Glassware, also called Firna and owned by a church member.
Through supposed investment in Xtron bonds, $13 million was allegedly misappropriated from the building fund of one of Singapore’s largest churches.
Another $11 million was said to have been channelled to sham investments in Firna bonds.
The prosecution revealed yesterday – to a courtroom packed with nearly 200 City Harvest members and supporters – that a second series of transactions was allegedly devised to misappropriate a further $26.6 million.
The prosecution said: “These further monies were circulated... to create the false appearance that the purported sham bond investments had been redeemed, when in fact the ‘redemption’ had been financed using these further monies misappropriated from church funds.”
This “round-tripping” meant that more of City Harvest’s building fund cash was used to repay the sums owed to itself.
The $26.6 million cover-up bid came about after the church’s auditor had raised questions about the purported bond investments.
Like Kong, who is represented by Edwin Tong of Allen & Gledhill, church management board member John Lam Leng Hung, 44, faces three similar charges.
The others charged – Kong’s deputy Tan Ye Peng, 39; church finance manager Sharon Tan Shao Yuen, 36; and investment manager Chew Eng Han, 52 – were slapped with more charges.
Chew and Tan Ye Peng each face 10 charges – six for criminal breach of trust and four for falsifying accounts.
Sharon Tan was charged with four counts of falsifying accounts and three for committing criminal breach of trust as an agent.
The first offence draws a maximum of 10 years’ jail, and or a fine. The second, which Kong’s charges come under, is punishable with a life sentence, or jail of up to 20 years and a fine.
The total sum of $50.6 million that the five conspired to cheat the church of makes the City Harvest case the biggest financial scandal involving a registered charity. It eclipses the $12 million that the National Kidney Foundation sued Mr T. T. Durai and three others for, and the $50,000 unauthorised loan Ren Ci hospital’s Ming Yi was jailed for.
Yesterday, more than 200 people gathered outside the courthouse before Kong, their spiritual leader and the founder of City Harvest, arrived with his wife.
Minders had to cut their way through the media scrum from the street to the building, with the couple taking small steps and keeping their gaze fixed ahead amid non-stop camera clicks.
City Harvest, established in 1989 with 20 members and now about 33,000-strong, later issued a statement on its website.
It said church operations and cell group meetings will continue, including weekend services at Singapore Expo and Jurong West.
The case has triggered a maelstrom of reactions online, for and against the church. The president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore, Bishop Terry Kee, yesterday sought the understanding of fellow Singaporeans, urging them “not to react against the church or churches here”.
Read related courtroom stories on this case here.