City Harvest founder Kong Hee charged in court for alleged misuse of church funds

(UPDATED 27 June 1.50pm to add details of Kong's court appearance)

City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee and four other senior CHC members were charged in court early Wednesday morning for alleged misuse of church funds.

They were offered bail of $500,000 each and their passports were impounded.

Kong, 47, faced three charges for committing criminal breach of trust as an agent of CHC and for allegedly misappropriating about $24 million from CHC's building funds for unauthorise
d use.

Each charge carries the maximum punishment of life imprisonment and a fine.

His deputy, Tan Ye Peng, 39, faced 10 charges, with three for criminal breach of trust and another seven for allegedly falsifying church accounts to cover up discrepancies in numbers.

Another church board member, John Lam Leng Hung, 44, faced three charges similar to Kong, while church finance manager Sharon Tan Shao Yuen, 37, and investment manager Chew Eng Han, in his 50s, faced seven and 10 charges respectively.

The five were said to have diverted $24 million of the church's building fund to finance the music career of Kong's wife, pop singer Ho Yeow Sun.

This was allegedly done through a series of sham transactions, which were made under the pretense of being bond investments in two companies, Xtron Productions and PT The First National Glassware.

The prosecution believes that $13 million was diverted to Xtron, with the remaining $11 million of church funds going to the other company.

Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong told the court that not only had they allegedly diverted $24 million through false transactions, some of them had conspired to misappropriate another $26.6 million of church funds to cover it up.

Kong, Tan, and the three other senior ministry members looked solemn as the charges were read against them.

Dressed in a white shirt and black pants, Kong appeared strained as he walked into the Subordinate Courts holding hands with his wife, Ho, who kept her eyes downcast. The pair was accompanied by a group of at least 100 supporters.

Scuffles, shouting

CHC supporters were out in full force as early as 8 am and formed an orderly queue outside the packed courtroom, where the five were charged.

Some were heard in the queue cheering and said they were positive that Kong had been wrongly accused.

"He will come out of this white as snow. That's what we are praying for, that's what we're sure of." said one supporter, who declined to be named.

However, things got rowdy once Kong and Sun made their exit from the courts, with scuffles and shouting matches starting between some photographers and supporters.

Some supporters deliberately stood in the way of journalists following the couple and got aggressive when asked to move.

At one point, supporters around the couple used their hands to block the photographers' photo lenses, and one was heard shouting "Why don't you go and get another job?".

The five are due to return to court in four weeks' time, on 25 July.

They were arrested from their homes in a pre-dawn raid by police on Tuesday.

Kong, Tan Ye Peng and Lam sat on the church's management board. Chew was a co-shareholder and director of AMAC Capital Partners Pte Ltd, the church's investment arm, while Sharon Tan was City Harvest's finance manager.

Focus on pop-star wife

According to a statement from the Commissioner of Charities (COC), the funds were believed to have been used to finance the music career of Kong's pop-star wife, Ho Yeow Sun.

The Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) began its two-year investigation in May 2010 after receiving information of alleged misuse of funds.

The COC, which launched its own investigation at the same time, found there was a “concerted effort to conceal this movement of funds from the charity’s stakeholders.”

The COC has also suspended eight people, included the five that have been charged. The other three are Ho herself, Kelvin Teo Meng How and Jacqueline Tan Su Pheng.

Kong, a prolific Twitter user who goes by @konghee, posted a tweet at 9am on Tuesday with a Bible Psalm in Chinese, translated to "The sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. Jesus will protect you from all harm."

He had spent the previous weekend before his arrest delivering his usual sermons, including one at the Heart of God Church in Paya Lebar.

Members of City Harvest church reacted with a mix of shock and denial.

"I still believe he will come out spotless from all this -- he's a man of God and we believe in him," said teacher Alicia Goh, 29, who attends the church regularly with her husband and two young children.

"I hope that the rest of the church and their good work will not be brought down with him. He is the founder of the church, but he can also make mistakes -- if he has indeed misused our funds, he needs to own up," said retiree Steven Wong, 67, who added that he was "very disappointed" by the news.

Many of Kong's supporters also took to Twitter to ask for "prayers" for Kong and the senior church ministry members, with one user "Erictan" saying that he was "praying and fasting" for Kong's "protection".

Other tweets were more sarcastic, with one tweeter saying that Kong had been having too great a "harvest" and that his arrest was an indication that "there is a God".

City Harvest, which was founded by Kong Hee and his wife Sun Ho in 1989, is among the largest church congregations in Asia. It runs 36 internal ministries and in 2010, had an average of 23,000 worshippers attending its weekly services in English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese and Indonesian in Singapore.

Reporters and churchgoers alike were denied access to City Harvest's main building in Jurong West on Tuesday evening.

26-year-old Lee Wei Kee, a gardener, who frequented the church on Tuesday evenings for bible classes and meetings, told Yahoo! Singapore he was surprised to find the building closed to everyone.

A member of City Harvest for seven years, Lee also voiced his confidence in Kong's integrity, even though he said he was not aware of the case, and has yet to hear any word from the church.

Case is not against CHC

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean also weighed in on the arrests, saying in a statement that the charges filed against Kong and his four fellow leaders, and not against the church itself.

"The CHC is free to continue its church services and activities," he said, calling for people to "let the law take its course" and "avoid speculation or making pre-judgements that may unnecessarily stir up emotions".

In a statement, CHC said on Tuesday that "there is no case that is being brought against the church" although two pastors and three members have been invited to attend court on Wednesday.

CHC also said that the CHC Advisory Committee, comprising of Phil Pringle. founder of Christian City Church in Sydney and A R Bernard, founder and CEO of Christian Cultural Centre in New York, will continue to provide spiritual leadership. Both pastors were appointed advisory senior pastors over CHC.

Church operations and cell group meetings will continue as usual, including all weekend services as Singapore Expo and Jurong West, CHC said.

The CAD, which is investigating Kong Hee and his leaders, had previously led the probe against Ren Ci Hospital and the National Kidney Foundation.

Just after 5:30pm on Tuesday, another tweet was sent from Kong's account that read, "Tough day ... I trust in You, Lord Jesus ... Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done!"

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