SINGAPORE - Six Christian church leaders in Singapore who spent US$36 million (S$50.1 million) on a bid to turn the pastor's glamourous wife into a global pop star were convicted Wednesday of fraud and could face long prison terms.
After a two-year trial that captivated Singapore with tales of lavish spending and financial deceit, pastor Kong Hee and five aides were found guilty of diverting S$24 million to finance his wife Sun Ho's singing career, which failed to take off.
The six, who insisted the project was conceived for religious reasons, were also found guilty of misappropriating another S$26 million from the evangelical City Harvest Church (CHC) to cover their tracks, prosecutors said.
Ho, 43, who appeared in a 2007 music video with rapper Wyclef Jean in an attempt to cross over from Mandarin pop and reach a wider English-language audience, was not charged.
The church tried to justify the use of the money saying Ho's music could be used to attract followers overseas, and spent large sums on high glitz music videos.
In one for a reggae-tinged song titled "Mr Bill", Ho appeared as a skimpily-clad Asian wife and sings about killing her African-American husband, played by supermodel Tyson Beckford.
Judge See Kee Oon found Kong and one other church leader guilty of criminal breach of trust. The four others, including the church accountants, were convicted of varying counts of criminal breach of trust as well as the falsification of accounts.
Criminal breach of trust carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, but state prosecutors said the actual prison term is limited to a maximum of 20 years.
The six used a practice called "round-tripping", channelling money allotted for a building fund into sham bonds in linked companies, to finance Ho's music career, prosecutors said. They also falsified church accounts to make it appear as though the bonds were redeemed.
"The accused persons chose to engage in covert operations and conspiratorial cover-ups. They contrived to create cover stories and clever round-trips concealing their unlawful conduct," Judge See said in court.
He said there was "no evidence of any wrongful gain" by the accused, but stressed that this was not an issue in the trial.
The six were granted bail before the sentencing date, which has not yet been set.
Spread the message
The church had defended Ho's attempt to become an international music star as a campaign to spread God's message to the secular world through music.
About 100 people, mostly church members, packed the courtroom, some having queued overnight to get a seat, and sat in stunned silence as the guilty verdict was read out. Kong and his fellow accused looked somber.
Kong, who founded the church with Ho in 1989, declined to answer questions as he left the court after the hearing.
The singer, who showed up for the verdict in a grey pantsuit and sporting heavily highlighted hair, thanked followers for their support in a Facebook post.
"Pastor Kong and I are humbled by the tremendous outpouring of love and support shown to us during this time. We thank you for your prayers," it read.
The pastor and his wife were once a high-profile couple who led the expansion of their congregation to more than 17,500 members, according to a 2014 annual report.
But they quickly fell from grace after charges were filed in 2013 and the court was told how church funds were spent on elaborate music videos, marketing and a luxurious lifestyle.
Ho moved to Los Angeles in 2009 and tried to break into the Hollywood music circles before the scandal scuttled her showbiz ambitions.
Singapore is predominantly Buddhist and Taoist but some local Christian churches have amassed large fortunes thanks to the city-state's affluent population.