City Harvest trial: A-list music stars part of plan to launch Sun Ho's pop music career
[UPDATED 30 August 2013 1115am: Adding details of Sun's music career]
Rihanna. Akon. Will.i.am. Missy Elliot. Timbaland.
These were some of the A-list music stars Pastor Kong Hee's wife, Ho Yeow Sun, was supposed to collaborate with, according to court documents shown on Wednesday.
Email exchanges between a Justin Herz, a former senior vice president at Warner Bros who owned a talent management company, and Kong showed the stars were part of a grand masterplan to launch Sun Ho's pop music career in the US.
Rihanna and Akon were supposed to tour with Sun, while Missy Elliott was supposed to appear in a music video. Black Eye Peas band member Will.i.am and Timbaland were supposed to help produce Sun's album.
But all this would come at a cost. Just over US$12 million to be precise, the figure cited in a 2008 email discussing the promotional marketing budget between Herz, Kong and his wife. All this was part of the Crossover Project, City Harvest Church's plan to convert more people to Christianity through Sun's pop music career.
Meanwhile, later on Wednesday, defence lawyers of the City Harvest Church leaders on trial for misappropriating millions from church coffers countered claims made by the prosecution that Xtron, a music production company which also helped to manage Sun's music ambitions, was controlled by church members.
While prosecutors sought to prove that the accused had channeled money into buying sham bond investments through Xtron, defence lawyers produced evidence which showed that they were legitimate investments to fund the church's Crossover Project.
They also said there was "ample consideration" for Xtron to invest in the project.
Defence lawyer Edwin Tong, who represents Kong, also submitted that due diligence reports of the transactions had been drafted and signed off by major law firms such as Rajah & Tann, who did not find anything amiss.
On Tuesday, minutes from a board meeting involving Xtron Productions, a music production company alleged to have been used by City Harvest to siphon off church funds, revealed that over S$10 million was spent on an album that was supposed to kickstart Sun’s career in the US.
Kong Hee, who along with other senior church leaders, is on trial for misappropriating S$24 million of church funds to finance Sun's singing career. In addition, over S$26 million in church money was allegedly misappropriated to cover up the original diversion.
The S$10 million figure came from minutes of an Xtron board meeting, which was shown in court on Tuesday.
According to the minutes, over US $1.6 million was spent on production fees for rap music star Wyclef Jean, who collaborated with Sun on the song, "China Wine", whose music video cost US$1 million to produce.
Xtron directors also approved an additional $2 million to produce Ho’s album “in order to get some popular song artistes and singers from USA be involved in the album”, the minutes showed. The album was also never released.
Minutes also showed Xtron paid for Sun Ho's travel expenses in business class as she "had a very busy promotional schedule", reported The Straits Times.
On Monday, the paper also reported that Sun had received over half a million dollars in bonuses and advances that were couched as "personal gifts" by sponsors in doctored documents.
Choong War Kheng, director of Xtron Productions, had earlier testified that he trusted City Harvest finance manager Serina Wee to handle Xtron's accounts even though she was not a company employee.
During his questioning in court, the state prosecutor pointed out that Wee was a City Harvest Church employee when she was involved in Xtron's discussions to issue the bonds.
Choong said, "Whether people are under payroll or not, I make a decision about who I trust. Serina was not officially Xtron's accountant but she was doing the accounts for Xtron. I really trusted her."
Xtron is accused of helping City Harvest to misuse church funds.
Prosecutors also produced emails on Monday that expressedly stated that Xtron was under the control of City Harvest -- these emails were between Wee, Tan and another church leader, Chew Eng Han. Choong's lawyers objected when he was asked about them as he was not copied in the emails.
He said, when asked about them, "I don't regard the statement (about CHC controlling Xtron) to be correct."
During Monday's session, prosecutors submitted evidence of emails and meeting minutes prepared by Xtron employees that City Harvest staff were consulted on business matters even though they were not on its payroll.
When asked why a "Mr Suraj", a City Harvest church employee not working in Xtron, was approving staff bonuses, he replied that he did not know.
"He represents me," said Choong, who was calm and composed throughout. "I don't know why he is approving (the bonuses), maybe it is his opinion."
In another line of questioning, when prosecution asked why Mr Suraj was asking Serina Wee for approval on policy changes, Choong replied, "Suraj has been an employee of CHC for a long time. I trust him more than my Xtron staff."
Another instance where Choong was unable to give a straight answer was when prosecution questioned him about the accuracy of meeting minutes.
Despite signing off on each of them, he was unable to state who wrote the minutes or its agenda.
When asked why Pastor Tan, Kong Hee's deputy, was asked to vet the meeting minutes before Choong signed off on, Choong replied that he did not know as well.
Before the case was adjourned back in May, prosecutors alleged the accused channeled money allotted for the church's building into buying sham bond investments in church-linked companies so they could finance Ho's secular music career.
They allegedly falsified church accounts to make it appear the bonds were redeemed, in a practice the prosecutors called "round-tripping".
A long queue of over 50 supporters had formed before dawn on Monday at the Subordinate Courts to show their support
A City Harvest church member, who declined to be named, told Yahoo! Singapore he had taken a half day off to support the pastor together with his fellow church members.
“We are concerned about the pastor. We came to the hearing to hear what is being presented in court, so that we do not give the wrong information to the public. The media can speak what they want. All of us are here as a family. If something were to happen, whether it is right or wrong,we will be concerned, naturally.”
Another two members of the public, a pair of female retirees,who looked like in their late 50s, came to court as it was a “public hearing” and the case was “high profile”.
One was just “here to accompany my friend”. The other commented that the “hearing was quite slow, but (then again) it is normally slow".
The church, which has a membership of more than 30,000, has affiliates in neighbouring Malaysia and other countries.
It is known for services that resemble pop concerts and had assets estimated at more than Sg$100 million in 2009.
The pastor's wife, now in her early 40s, was hoping international stardom would help spread the church's message, according to previous reports in the Singapore media.
Last month, Kong Hee was back in the headlines after a YouTube video which went viral showed a Kong Hee sermon in which he claimed that God had apologised to him for his struggles.
"'Father, Father, why, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me and thrown me to the dogs?'" he was recorded as saying, after relating the experience of Jesus Christ on the cross at his crucifixion and sharing that he identified with that kind of suffering.
"For the first time in eight months, God, I heard Him cry. And he said 'My son, Kong, thank you. Thank you for going through this. I need you to go through this alone, so that you and City Harvest Church can be the man and the ministry I call it to be. I'm so sorry, but you need to go through this by yourself, to bring a change to your generation,” Kong said.
A spokesperson for the church later clarified in a statement that "the use of 'I'm so sorry' here is not in the context of an apology, but a word of comfort".
"It is in no way an apology or an admission of guilt as has been suggested," the spokesperson said.
"The message God gave (Kong) was that it is necessary for him to journey through this painful experience because it is a refiner's fire, meant to prepare him for the work God has in store for him and the church for the future."