City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee and five other church leaders lost their appeal against conviction but had their jail terms reduced on Friday (7 April) over an elaborate $50 million financial fraud after exhaustive investigations and legal tussles lasting about seven years.
In a courtroom packed with reporters, CHC members and members of the public, the High Court panel of judges, comprising Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin, and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn, reduced the jail terms of Kong to three years and six months from eight years; Deputy Senior Pastor Tan Ye Peng to three years and two months from five years and six months; former board member John Lam to one year and six months from three years; former fund manager Chew Eng Han to three years and four months from six years; former finance manager Serina Wee to two years and six months from five years; and Wee’s successor, former finance manager Sharon Tan to seven months from 21 months.
The appeal outcome was a split decision, with Justice Chan dissenting from the majority view of the other two judges.
The High Court reduced the CHC leaders’ criminal breach of trust (CBT) charges from section 409 to section 406 of the Penal Code.
In law, the defendants as directors did not fall as “agents” under the aggravated CBT offences under section 409, which are more serious offences providing for higher maximum penalties, the majority view decided.
The prescribed punishment for section 409 is a maximum jail term of life or 20 years’ and a fine while that for section 406 is a maximum of seven years’ jail or fine or both.
All the leaders except for Sharon Tan will start serving their jail terms in two weeks’ time. Tan will serve in two months’ time as she is helping her family to relocate to the US.
More than an hour before the scheduled start of the appeals case, all the queue tickets were given out while the court room was full. Several of the CHC leaders entered the Supreme Court building via the carpark before the case started and avoided speaking to reporters except for Lam, who said that he was “apprehensive”.
In 2010, the Commercial Affairs Department and the Commissioner of Charities announced that individuals linked to CHC were being investigated after they received complaints of misuse of church funds, which led to the six CHC church leaders being charged in 2012.
The leaders were convicted of varying charges of CBT and falsifying of accounts after they were accused of misappropriating millions in church funds to support the music career of Kong’s wife, Sun Ho, in a church mission known as the Crossover Project. They were given the jail sentences on 20 November 2015.
During the trial, which spanned over 140 days from 2013 to 2015, the court found that the six had invested $24 million from CHC’s building fund in sham bonds from music production firm Xtron and glass-maker Firna. The money was used to finance the Crossover Project, and another $26.6 million was used to cover up the act.
In their defence, the leaders maintained that their actions were for the good of the church and that they did not gain financially.
Following the delivery of the sentence, the Attorney-General’s Chambers appealed on 27 November 2015 against all six sentences, calling the jail terms “manifestly inadequate”. The defence filed an appeal on 2 December 2015 against the conviction and sentences of the six leaders. The appeal hearing lasted a week in September 2016.
After the verdict by the High Court, reporters approached the CHC leaders, their family members and lawyers for their reactions.
Wee’s husband, Kenny Low, said he didn’t want to think about the verdict. “The first thing I want to do is to talk to my wife. I want to go back and spend time with my family,” Low said.
Sharon Tan’s lawyer, Paul Seah, said they were disappointed that it was not an acquittal but recognised that the sentence was reduced, adding that it was time for his client to pray and spend time with her family.
Chew said he was disappointed with the outcome and he would likely make another appeal.
Summary of sentences:
Kong Hee, 52 (Senior Counsel Edwin Tong)
Sentence after appeal: three years and six months, Original sentence: eight years’ jail; Charges: criminal breach of trust (three)
Tan Ye Peng, 44 (Senior Counsel N. Sreenivasan)
Sentence after appeal: three years and two months, Original sentence: five years and six months’ jail, Charges: criminal breach of trust (six) and falsification of accounts (four)
John Lam, 49 (Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan)
Sentence after appeal: one year and six months, Original sentence: three years’ jail, Charges: conspiring to commit criminal breach of trust (three)
Chew Eng Han, 56 (unrepresented)
Sentence after appeal: three years and four months, Original sentence: six years’ jail, Charges: criminal breach of trust (six) and falsification of accounts (four)
Serina Wee, 40 (Senior Counsel Andre Maniam)
Sentence after appeal: two years and six months, Original sentence: five years’ jail, Charges: criminal breach of trust (six) and falsification of accounts (four)
Sharon Tan, 41 (Defence counsel Paul Seah)
Sentence after appeal: seven months, Original sentence: 21 months’ jail, Charges: criminal breach of trust (three) and accounts falsification (four)Prosecution: DPPs Mavis Chionh, Tan Kiat Pheng, Christopher Ong, Joel Chen, Jeremy Yeo and Eugene Sng
— additional reporting by Wan Ting Koh