Singapore presses embezzlement case against church leaders

Founder of City Harvest Church Kong Hee and wife Sun Ho arrive at the Subordinate Courts of Singapore for the criminal trial against him and five other church leaders over alleged misappropriation of funds.

Prosecutors Thursday pressed their case against leaders of a Singapore-based Christian church accused of embezzling millions of dollars to finance the singing career of the pastor's wife. Alleged sham investments by the City Harvest Church came under the spotlight as prosecutors questioned their first witness, Lai Baoting, the church's former assistant accountant. Through Lai's testimony they tried to show that the church's finance manager and fund manager were involved in the investments. The pastor and founder Kong Hee, 48, and four officers were charged last year with varying degrees of involvement in a scheme to siphon off Sg$24 million ($19 million) to finance the singing career of his wife, Sun Ho. In addition, more than Sg$26 million in church money was allegedly misappropriated to cover up the original diversion. Prosecutors at the start of the trial Wednesday said 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". "These transactions were thus designed to throw the auditors off the scent of the bogus bonds," said Deputy Public Prosecutor Mavis Chionh. Chionh told the packed courtroom Wednesday the offences were "part of a deliberately planned, meticulously coordinated and carefully executed scheme which stretched over a period of time and involved the movement of millions of dollars". On Thursday the six accused appeared light-hearted, whispering and smiling at some points during the hearing. Scores of church members trooped to the court for a second day Thursday to lend their support, with some queuing from 4.30 am to ensure a seat. 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.

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