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City Harvest appeal: Kong Hee’s sentence reduced to 3.5 years

“SINGAPORE: City Harvest Church founder and senior pastor Kong Hee has had his prison sentence reduced to three years and six months from eight years, while the other five leaders also had their sentences reduced.

The six were in court on Friday (Apr 7) to hear the outcome of their appeal against both their conviction and sentences after being found guilty in October 2015 of misappropriating about S$50 million of church funds.

Former fund manager Chew Eng Han had his six-year sentence lowered to three years and four months, while deputy pastor Tan Ye Peng had his original five-and-a-half-year sentence cut to three years and two months.

Former finance manager Serina Wee Gek Yin’s original five-year sentence was halved to two years and six months, and former finance committee member John Lam Leng Hung’s three-year sentence was similarly halved to one year and six months.

Former finance manager Sharon Tan Shao Yuen had her 21-month jail sentence reduced to seven months.

Friday’s hearing was the culmination of a five-day appeal heard in September last year by a three-judge panel, including Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn.

After the revised sentences were announced, Kong, Lam, Chew, Wee and Tan Ye Peng all asked for their sentences to start after two weeks, and the court agreed.

Sharon Tan asked to defer the start of her sentence by two months, as her family is relocating overseas in June and she said she wants to help her children adjust to the move. The court agreed to this, too.

COURT REDUCES CRIMINAL BREACH OF TRUST CHARGES

Justice Chao said in his oral judgement on Friday that a majority decision was made to reduce the respective criminal breach of trust (CBT) charges against the six, from an aggravated form of CBT – which they were initially convicted of – to a “simple” form of CBT.

Justice Chao said he and Justice Woo thought the prosecution had not satisfied the requirements to prove the aggravated form of CBT, which the law states the person must be a public servant, banker, merchant, factor, broker, attorney or an agent, when committing the crime.

“While a director undoubtedly holds an important position in a company or organisation, it cannot be said that a person by becoming a director has offered his services as an agent to the community at large or that he makes his living as an agent,” the judge said.

UNPRECEDENTED CASE

The City Harvest case is unprecedented. The S$50 million taken from the mega-church’s coffers is the largest amount of charity funds ever misappropriated in Singapore.

The money was used to bankroll the secular music career of the pastor’s wife Sun Ho, without the knowledge of the congregation which is made up of tens of thousands of worshippers who had donated the millions of dollars to the church.

The case is unprecedented also because the millions were “replaced” through a series of sham investments and shady transactions, and the church ultimately suffered no financial loss.

“If this is the largest amount going out the door, it is also unprecedented in that it is the largest amount coming back,” Kong’s lawyer Jason Chan had said.

Still, the actions of Kong and the five co-accused were criminal – they effectively took City Harvest Church’s funds into their own hands to use as they pleased, despite them being plainly not authorised to do so, a judge had said.

Although the congregation largely supported Ho’s secular music career – through the church’s Crossover Project which aimed to use her music to evangelise – they had no idea that they were footing the bill.

A total of S$24 million of church funds diverted into sham investments was used to bankroll Ms Ho’s budding career and extravagant lifestyle. Another S$26 million of church funds was used to cover up the first amount to fool auditors and to conceal the fact that money from the church’s building fund – a restricted fund set aside for building-related expenses – had been used for an unauthorised purpose.”