SINGAPORE – They were not motivated by personal gain and they thought they were acting in the best interests of City Harvest Church (CHC).
Ultimately, the church leaders believed that their actions would advance the Crossover Project, a church mission to spread the gospel through pop music, which was found to be generally supported by the congregation.
These were the “exceptional” mitigating factors considered by a three-judge panel, in reducing the jail terms for the six convicted CHC leaders on Friday (April 7).
The six, who had appealed against their conviction and sentences, were given reduced jail terms raging from seven months to three years and six months.
In a 304-page written judgment, the judges noted that the case should not be seen as a “sinister and malicious attempt” by the six to use the church’s funds for their own purposes, despite the huge sum of about $50 million involved.
Rather, they had “resorted to deceit and lies”, such as hiding the truth of their transactions from auditors and lawyers, because they wanted to keep the use of the church’s monies for the Crossover Project confidential. They had also feared that questions would be asked.
“Their fault lies in adopting the wrong means,” the judges said.
The prosecution, in calling for stiffer sentences, had earlier stressed on the misappropriation of charity funds as among the key aggravating factors.
But the court, in the written judgment, clarified that while CHC is a charity organisation, it is not a charity that is also an Institution of Public Character (IPC).
This means that donations to the church are not tax-deductible.
Thus, unlike funds that are held by IPCs, such as the National Kidney Foundation, donations to church funds “are invariably made by its members for the benefit of the church” and do not serve the community as a whole.
In addition, while the six had been “reckless” with the funds, the court accepted that had no intention to cause permanent financial loss to the church.
“The appellants had, at all times, intended for the funds … to be eventually returned to CHC with the stated interest even if they might not have been entirely sure as to how or when they could do so at the time when they entered into the transactions,” the judges said.
In meting out the harshest sentence among the six to Kong, the judges agreed that he was the “ultimate leader” of the Crossover Project and gave the overall direction and moral assurance to the five others.
He was also one of the main players – if not the main one – who had directed and influenced the others to using the church’s Building Fund to purchase sham bonds, even if he did not directly participate in redeeming them.
Touching on the issue of personal gain, the judges said: “While the Prosecution did, in its oral submissions before us, attempt to make the point that a benefit had accrued to Kong Hee’s wife, Sun Ho, this point was not raised in its written submissions for the appeal.” The issue of personal benefit was, therefore, not factored into the sentencing.
The judges also disagreed with the prosecution that former CHC finance committee manager John Lam, 49, was an “inside man” integral to the success of the conspiracy.
Instead, the judges found Lam’s involvement to be “relatively limited” and “only at some junctures”, thus sentencing him one year and six months, down from three years.
Former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han, 56, had “employed his wits and financial expertise to mask the reality of the transactions”, even though he was not a spiritual leader of the church.
As he had been the person trusted in all financial matters, the court handed him a jail term of three years and four months, down from six years.
CHC deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 49, was jailed three years and two months. This was a reduction from his orignal sentence of five years and six months.
While he was a spiritual leader in church, the judges accepted that he did not have the trust and authority that Kong had.
Finally, the judges found that former CHC finance managers Serina Wee, 40, and Sharon Tan, 41, were less culpable as they were not leaders in church.
Wee was an “administrator” helping out with accounts and documentation. She received two years and six months’ jail, down from the five years that was previously given.
As for Tan, who took over the role from Wee, the judges agreed that she was “only an employee” and was merely carrying out instructions by the decision-makers in the church. She was given the lowest sentence of seven months, instead of 21 months previously.