IN what could further erode confidence in one of Singapore's megachurches, the six leaders of City Harvest Church (CHC) were on Wednesday found to have acted dishonestly and guilty of two conspiracies to misuse CHC funds to prop up the pop music career of singer Sun Ho, who is wife of church leader Kong Hee, one of the convicted parties.
One conspiracy consisted of misusing CHC Building Fund monies for the Crossover Project, aimed at evangelising through Ms Ho's secular music. Another involved misusing CHC's funds, largely comprising Building Fund monies, to create the appearance of bond redemptions and to defraud the auditors via falsified accounts.
On Wednesday morning, the Presiding Judge of State Courts, See Kee Oon, delivered a strongly-worded verdict to the six - CHC founder and senior pastor Kong Hee, 51; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 42; ex-CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55; former CHC finance managers Serina Wee, 38, and Sharon Tan, 40; and ex-CHC finance committee member John Lam, 47.
The judge told a packed courtroom that based on overwhelming evidence shown during the 140-day trial, each accused had "participated and functioned in their own way as crucial cogs in the machinery".
Five of the six, including Kong, are guilty of misusing S$24 million CHC funds to promote the music of Ms Ho, who is Kong's wife. Four of the six had misappropriated some S$26 million by falsifying accounts to cover up the first sum.
Previously, the defence had argued that the six never intended to cause or caused loss to the church, that they consulted and cleared their proposals with lawyers, auditors and the CHC Board, and that they were motivated by the church's cultural mandate. The six also did not benefit from the transactions, they added.
But these arguments failed to convince the judge, who pointed out that evidence showed that the Building Fund monies were controlled by the six and were channelled through sham bond investments in music production firm Xtron and glass manufacturer Firna, to the Crossover Project.
"Where professional advice was sought, this was really mainly an attempt to seek out self-supporting confirmatory advice based on selectively-disclosed information. They omitted mention of the crucial fact that CHC remained in control of Xtron and would correspondingly control the use of the funds.
They provided leading questions for belief confirmation and support from only those advisors whom they trusted to support the Crossover vision and were quick to reject or filter out any disconfirming information," said the judge.
The Crossover Project, he said, became the logic for justifying their beliefs and actions.
The court heard that at various times, Kong and his team gave the auditors false impressions that CHC and Xtron were independent of each other, and that Kong was the one who called the shots.
During the trial, Kong had explained that it was necessary for funding of the Crossover Project to be discreet to ensure its success, but Judge See said evidence showed that Ms Ho's "perceived success was inflated" and that Xtron and the Crossover team had to rely heavily on sponsorship from church supporters.
Another point raised - that the six accused knew that they were not legally entitled to enter into the bond investments, which was why they failed to mention that the funds were going into the Crossover Project, even as they repeatedly told CHC executive members that the investments were to maximise returns.
Describing Kong and his team as "overconfident" in thinking they could replace the funds before suspicions were aroused, the judge said the six had "a mindset of presumptuousness or boldness".
He noted that Lam, Chew, Wee and Sharon Tan were acting in accordance with the instructions of people they considered to be their spiritual leaders, deserving of their trust and deference, and that Tan Ye Peng, although a leader in his own right, similarly trusted completely in the leadership of Kong.
"But no matter how pure the motive or how ingrained the trust in one's leaders, regardless of the context in which that trust operates, these do not exonerate an accused person from criminal liability if all the elements of an offence are made out."
At least one of the six has indicated intent to appeal - Chew has told the media that he intends to do so.
In a Facebook post, Ms Ho said they are disappointed by the outcome and that the group is "studying the judgement intently and will take legal advice from their respective lawyers in the days to come".
In thanking well-wishers, Ms Ho said Kong and her are "humbled" by the "tremendous outpouring of love and support".
Earlier in the day, CHC supporters were seen queueing outside the State Courts from as early as 5am for a ticket to enter the public gallery. Others, including members of the public who failed to get a ticket, waited outside the courtroom in anticipation.
After the hearing, church supporters declined comment when approached by reporters.
Bail ranging between S$750,000 and S$1 million has been fixed for each of the six convicted.
The prosecution is to file written submissions by Nov 6, while the defence will file mitigation pleas by Nov 13. Oral submissions will be heard in court on Nov 20.
For criminal breach of trust, Kong and the others could be jailed up to 10 years and fined on each charge. The falsification of accounts carries a jail term of up to 10 years and a fine.