Six City Harvest Church leaders sentenced to jail

Six City Harvest Church leaders sentenced to jail

Six former City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders found guilty of misusing church funds last month were all sentenced to jail on Friday.

In a packed court on Friday afternoon, after hearing final arguments earlier in the day, judge See Kee Oon gave the heaviest sentence – eight years in prison – to church co-founder and deputy senior pastor Kong Hee. 

Chew Eng Han, Kong, John Lam, Sharon Tan, Tan Ye Peng and Serina Wee were convicted last month of criminal breach of trust involving S$24 million and using S$26.6 million to cover it up in a bid to boost the pop music career of Kong’s wife, Sun Ho, in the US.

Former finance manager Sharon Tan got the lightest sentence of 21 months in jail.

Ex-finance committee member Lam was sentenced to three years in jail, former finance manager Wee to five years, deputy pastor Tan Ye Peng to five years and six months, and former CHC fund manager Chew to six years.

The start of the jail terms has been deferred to 11 January next year.

In a Facebook post Friday evening, Kong said he was "saddened" by the length of the sentence.

"I am presently studying the judgement and sentence carefully with my lawyers, and will make a meaningful decision whether to appeal in due course," he said.

"I continue to ask for your prayers during this time. I love and appreciate you so much. Thank you for loving me and my family," he added.

Judge's explanation

"I do not believe that they had intended to cause long-term harm to CHC through the permanent deprivation of those funds. Thus I had characterised their plans broadly as being akin to a 'temporary loan' arrangement which was unlawful as they were effectively putting CHC’s funds into their own hands to use as they needed for the purposes of the Crossover and for roundtripping," said the judge. 

"I am of the view that the sentences should be sufficiently substantial to serve the needs of general deterrence but they should not be crushing sentences. I have sought to carefully calibrate the sentences so as to ensure that they are proportionate to each accused person’s role and culpability, having regard to the seriousness of the offences," he added. 

The judge announced the sentencing after final arguments were made between the defence counsel and prosecutions in the morning, during which, the defense lawyers collectively agreed that sentencing recommendations made by prosecutions on 16 November were "incorrect" and "out of sync" with the circumstances of the six individuals. 

Final arguments

The defence pointed out that none of the convicted had received personal gains and that it was inappropriate for the prosecutions to base their recommendations on the amount of funds misappropriated when each of them had varying levels of involvement. 

Lawyer Edwin Tong said Kong Hee had demonstrated "conscientiousness" in the crossover project and "scrutinised" its finances. 

"This was not a group of accused persons who were cavalier in the way they had spent the church's money. They were not careless."

Wee's lawyer, Andre Maniam, highlighted her involvement was mainly "administrative", no funds was entrusted to her and she was " never a pastor". 

Lam's involvement was "not extensive" and was "intermittent", while Sharon Tan was not involved with bond charges, he said. 

"They were all acting in accordance to instructions of people they considered their spiritual leaders deserving of their trust," Maniam added. 

However, prosecutors argued that the former church members other than Kong Hee "were not just blind followers", as each of them had "played an effective role" in the scheme. Prosecution also disagreed to taking a "linear approach" to their sentencing recommendations, adding that the sentencing would have been higher if they had done so.

The defence also produced a letter of leniency signed by 173 of the church's executive members, who also contributed donations to the building fund, for the judge to consider in his decision.

"In this whole matter, we believe they wanted to fulfill the Crossover mission and in their zeal, they overstepped certain boundaries," said in the letter.  

The sentencing follows a 140-day trial — one of the longest in Singapore — that came to a close in September when the prosecution and lawyers for the accused made their final submissions to the court. - Addtional reporting by Nurul Azilah Aripin