[UPDATE on 22 Aug: adding COC statement on raising funds for legal case]
The Commissioner of Charities has spoken up on news of City Harvest church members moving to raise funds to support their six leaders who are embroiled in a mismanagement of funds legal case.
In a statement responding to media queries on Tuesday, it said it had earlier imposed a restriction order to the church board, disallowing them from paying legal fees for church co-founder Kong Hee, or his five fellow accused church leaders.
The order, it said, extends to "transactions relating to payment of services to the suspended individuals and their related entities" as well.
"The COC has informed CHC that the church and/or its employees should not be involved in raising funds for their legal expenses or setting up a specific fund for this purpose," the statement said.
Separately, several City Harvest members are believed to be privately raising funds to help pay for beleaguered co-founder Pastor Kong Hee’s legal fees as well as that of five other leaders.
The unofficial fundraising effort came to light during CHC’s AGM last Sunday, when an executive member named Dawn Lee spoke up about her intention to mobilise individuals who wanted to offer Kong and the five financial support, reported The Straits Times.
Ms Lee claimed to know other members who had privately come together to raise money, and her speech was met with cheers from the 560 executive members present.
She then suggested that interested members meet her after the meeting before distributing her contact details.
Ms Lee’s announcement came after executive pastor Aries Zulkarnain rejected four proposals from other members suggesting the use of church funds to bankroll the six charged leaders’ legal fees.
Thanking the members for their ideas, Zulkarnain emphasized that the church was not allowed to assist Kong and the five with their legal fees. He also added that CHC could not endorse any mass demonstration by members.
According to The Straits Times, one of the four motions suggested by executive members included the setting up a donation fund for Kong Hee and the other leaders.
Last month, several youth church leaders also came together to record a music video to show support of Kong Hee and City Harvest.
Kong, his right hand man Tan Ye Peng, finance manger Sharon Tan, church investment manager Chew Eng Han, former church finance manager Serina Wee, and board management member John Lam Leng Hung have been charged with conspiring to misappropriate millions of dollars from the church’s funds.
They have been charged with putting S$24 million into sham investments to help fund the music career of Pastor Kong Hee's wife, Sun Ho. Another S$26 million worth of church funds were then allegedly misappropriated to balance the church’s account books.
With the exception of Kong, all the other five are represented by senior counsels – considered the best, and also the most expensive of lawyers.
A lawyer Yahoo! Singapore spoke to said that those who employed senior counsels would be looking at legal bills of at least $1.5 million -- or more – in the case of a lengthy trial, which looks to be the case.
“In any event, I would imagine that they would hire senior counsels only if they could actually afford it – this news that church members want to give them financial support would be damaging and not beneficial to their images, there will definitely be more accusations that they are extravagant and ripping their followers off,” said a criminal lawyer who declined to be named
He added that his advice, if they were his clients, would be to distance themselves from any kind of cash offering or support.
Church members interviewed by Yahoo! said the motions were triggered by the congregation’s concerns that the families of the six would be financially impacted by their loss of income.
“Many of us feel that, on top of the emotional troubles they are facing, they should not also have to worry or struggle about the legal fees. To us, our leaders are also family, and if it is a personal decision to help them out, I don’t think it’s against the law,” said teacher Alicia Goh, 29.
She added that she would be interested to hear more about Ms Lee’s mobilization of financial donations and that she trusts that the money will be “put to good use”.
“I hope that the public can just see this as friends supporting another friend in need. Just as Pastor Kong has given us spiritual and financial help without condition, we are doing the same. It’s a private affair, so please don’t judge us,” said marketing executive Donald Ho, 37.
If found guilty, Kong Hee could face a maximum of life imprisonment and fine.
Last week, lawyers for all six charged said their clients would likely not be pleading guilty -- which means they are likely to claim trial.
The six will be in court on Aug 30 when their case is mentioned again.
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