City Harvest Appeal: Trying to overturn conviction, lawyer argues ‘no personal gain’ for Kong Hee
by Wan Ting Koh
HE DID it out of good faith for the church. He didn’t gain anything from it, and besides, he consulted professionals all the way.
So whatever he may have done, his were not the actions of a dishonest person, said the defence counsel for City Harvest Church (CHC) founder and pastor Kong Hee, 52, who appeared in the Court of Appeal today (Sept 15). Together with him were the five other co-accused, who were also present to try and overturn their convictions and sentences.
In Kong’s case, his lawyer Edwin Tong repeated his arguments in the earlier trial, this time to a three-judge panel this afternoon. He said that Kong had nothing to gain from the misappropriation, and that the funds were “used and deployed” entirely for the church’s purpose. “There is no doubt that there is no gain on the part of the accused,” said Mr Tong.
Kong had willingly and “consistently” consulted lawyers and auditors about a series of bond transactions made with church funds for the Crossover Project, the lawyer added. He had also instructed the church’s lawyers and auditors to be consulted before investing in bonds from Xtron and Firna.
The trial of the six City Harvest Church leaders was one of the longest-running criminal case in Singapore, lasting more than 140 days stretched across almost three years.
In October last year, all six were convicted of varying counts of criminal breach of trust and falsifying accounts. They had been accused of misappropriating $24 million in CHC’s building funds through sham bond investments in music production firm Xtron and glassware maker Firna. They also misused a further $26 million to cover up the initial misuse.
Back then, Kong Hee received the stiffest sentence of eight years’ jail while the others received sentences of between 21 months’ to six years’ jail. Kong was then described by Judge See Kee Oon as “CHC’s spiritual leader, the prime mover and driving force for the Crossover”, adding that Kong should be held “most culpable”.
But today, Kong’s defence lawyer again tried to direct the court to the argument that he was not the mastermind of the scam and that he had consulted professionals at every step of the investments.
Even after the bonds were bought, Kong consulted auditor Foong Daw Ching when they were worried that the bonds may not be redeemed on time, even though they didn’t have to, said Mr Tong. Kong made “full and comprehensive disclosure of info to professionals” throughout the period.
The funds still ended up where they needed to be, said Mr Tong, adding: “Your Honour may have a view whether as to the mechanics by which it is done… Beyond that mechanism, there is no doubt that the funds went entirely to where it was supposed to go, to serve the Crossover Project.”
The Crossover Project involved funding Kong’s wife Ho Yeow Sun’s singing career, where she recorded secular music and subsequently forayed into the United States with her music.
The five other co-accused who appeared in court today were deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 43, former church investment committee member and former board member Chew Eng Han, 56, former finance manager Serina Wee, 39, former church investment committee member John Lam, 48, and former finance manager Sharon Tan, 40.
This appeal is not just for the defence; the prosecution also wants a chance to lengthen the six people’s sentences. Prosecution had recommended a jail sentence of five to 12 years for all six. After the sentence was meted out, the prosecution has said the prison terms imposed were “manifestly inadequate, in all the circumstances of the case”.
Earlier, Judge See Kee Oon said he had agreed with the prosecution’s call for general deterrence, but he said he was mindful that did not mean “disproportionately crushing sentences”. However, their actions remain unlawful as they were “effectively putting CHC’s funds into their own hands to use as they needed”, despite them being unauthorised to do so.
Today, apart from Kong Hee, former church investment committee member John Lam, 48, who was sentenced to three years’ jail, also presented his appeal in court.
His lawyer, Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan said that he was “had no the degree of knowledge and involvement as the rest”, and that Lam had believed that the bonds were genuine investments. Mr Tan pointed out that Lam was not privy to email exchanges where plans were discussed as he was not copied in them.
When the judge asked whether the defence was saying that Lam was an “innocent pawn” being “used by the others if they were found guilty of some dishonest intention”, Mr Tan said “Yes”.
“We are saying John Lam was being used to facilitate their plan without knowing the full picture,” he said.
The hearing will resume tomorrow morning with Chew Eng Han, who is representing himself and expected to start with his appeal. He will be followed by the defence counsel for Sharon Tan.
Additional reporting by Aishah Tamiri.
Featured image by Najeer Yusof.
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