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IN a culmination of one of the biggest scandals to hit the charity sector, the six leaders of one of Singapore's megachurches, City Harvest Church (CHC), have been handed jail terms of between 21 months and eight years, with founder Kong Hee receiving the longest sentence for his role in misusing millions of dollars in church funds to prop up the music career of his wife, Sun Ho.
After 140 days of trial, the presiding judge of the State courts, See Kee Oon, on Friday said he found senior pastor Kong, 51, to be the most culpable, and sentenced him to eight years' imprisonment.
Former CHC fund manager and church member Chew Eng Han, 55, was given a six-year term; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 42, received 51/2 years; ex-CHC finance manager Serina Wee, 38, got five years; former CHC committee member John Lam, 47, was jailed three years, and ex-CHC finance manager Sharon Tan, 40, received the lightest sentence, 21 months.
In a Facebook post on Friday night, Kong said he is "saddened by the length of it" and thanked supporters for their love towards him and his family.
Meanwhile, Chew has indicated he will appeal; the other five are considering their options.
All six are out on bail and expected to start serving their sentences on Jan 11.
The Attorney-General's Chambers said the prosecution will study the judge's grounds before deciding if it will file a notice of appeal.
Late last month, the six were found guilty of conspiring to misuse S$24 million in CHC Building Fund monies for the Crossover Project, which was aimed at evangelising through Ms Ho's secular music. Another set of charges involved the misappropriation of a further S$26 million to cover up the first sum through sham bond investments and to defraud auditors with falsified accounts.
In arriving at his decisions, Judge See pointed out the importance of deterring people entrusted with charity monies from misusing those funds - something prosecutor Christopher Ong urged the court to do.
But the judge said he was mindful that deterrence should not "entail the imposition of disproportionately crushing sentences"; he agreed with the defence that general deterrence has rather less cogency in the context of cases where there is no direct personal gain and no evidence of such motives.
The defence had said in mitigation that there had been no wrongful gain as the accused had not benefited from the use of the funds, that they had no intention to cause wrongful loss to the church, that the church did not suffer a loss as the monies were returned with interest, and that the actions were borne out of love for the church and to spread the gospel.
But the prosecution, which had pressed for a jail term of 11 to 12 years for Kong, argued that there were several aggravating factors, namely the profound quality and degree of trust abused by the accused, particularly Kong, the devious and conspiratorial pre-meditation and planning involved in the sophisticated offences, and the covert measures taken by the accused to prevent detection of their crimes.
In his oral grounds for decision, the judge said the issues at trial were not "mere lapses of corporate governance", but were serious offences in which the six acted dishonestly. Wider issues of personal integrity, transparency and accountability were also in the mix.
And while Judge See said he believed the six accused had no intention of causing long-term harm to the church through the permanent deprivation of those funds, he said the arrangements were unlawful and had effectively put CHC's funds into their hands to use as needed for the purposes of the Crossover Project and for round-tripping, and which were unauthorised.
The court heard that Kong was the most culpable in the sham bond investments as he was the church's spiritual leader, "prime mover and driving force" for the Crossover Project.
"Ye Peng and Serina, and to some extent, John Lam as well, also relied heavily on Eng Han's expertise. Both Kong Hee and Eng Han put forward dominant views and preferred strategies that all the other accused persons chose not to oppose or question," the judge said.
On the charges of round-tripping and falsification of documents, the judge found Chew to be the most culpable as the round-tripping transactions were devised and structured by him, while Sharon Tan, Tan Ye Peng and Wee played a lesser role.
In a Facebook post, the church thanked its members for their support. Some church members had turned up at the State Courts on Thursday evening to be assured of a seat in the public gallery the following day. The church urged them to "band together" and to continue praying for those who have been convicted.
Separately, the Commissioner of Charities (COC) issued a statement later on Friday, saying it has resumed regulatory action under the Charities Act to remove seven individuals from the church.
They are: Kong, Lam, Tan Ye Peng, Sharon Tan, Wee, Kelvin Teo Meng How and Jacqueline Tan Su Pheng.
"The removal proceedings aim to protect the charitable assets of the charity and do not prevent the said individuals from continuing with their religious duties, which are separate from the holding of any governance or management positions in the charity."
COC had earlier agreed to defer the removals until after the criminal proceedings of the six conclude.
As Chew is no longer part of the church, the question of his removal is irrelevant, the COC said. But it said it has ordered the church not to enter into any transactions with Chew and his related entities without the commissioner's consent.
An order issued in June 2012, which restricts CHC from paying the legal fees of those involved in the criminal and removal proceedings, as well as for services to the individuals and their related entities without the COC's approval, remains in place.
The church is also required to provide regular updates to the COC's office on its key activities and finances.
For all our coverage of the City Harvest trial: bt.sg/CHCtrial