Singapore presses embezzlement case against church leaders

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 -- a registered charity -- 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 five officers have been charged with varying degrees of involvement in a scheme to siphon off Sg$24 million ($19 million) to finance the singing career of his wife, who goes by the name Sun Ho in the music industry. 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 an elaborate scheme the prosecutors called "round-tripping". "The 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". Edwin Thong, one of the defence lawyers, said Thursday that an external auditor did not question the authenticity of the investments. The six accused appeared light-hearted, whispering and smiling at some points during the hearing. "Christian, remember the goodness of God in the frost of adversity," Kong tweeted after the court adjourned Thursday, quoting from 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon. 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. She had based herself in Hollywood while trying to break into the international music industry.