City Harvest trial: We were acting on advice, say co-accused

City Harvest trial: We were acting on advice, say co-accused
PHOTO: The Straits Times

In one of their last chances to prove their innocence, the six co-accused in the long-running City Harvest trial yesterday tried to distance themselves from allegations that they had misappropriated $50 million in church funds.

During the case's final oral submissions, Mr Jason Chan, the lawyer for City Harvest Church (CHC) senior pastor Kong Hee, said his client had specifically directed the bond transactions be "okay-ed" by CHC's auditors and lawyers.

Deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 42, also claimed he was acting on the advice of auditors and fellow church leaders, while the lawyer for former finance manager Serina Wee, 38, said she had acted with no dishonest intent.

Mr Chan said: "No red flags concerning the legal entitlement to use the building fund in such a manner were raised to any of the accused persons."

He added that if 50-year-old Kong truly had "questionable motives" he would not have sought the advice of external experts.

Kong and five others are accused of misappropriating $24 million in CHC's building funds through sham bond investments in music production firm Xtron and glass manufacturer Firna, and allegedly misusing a further $26 million to cover it up.

Also facing charges are former finance manager Sharon Tan, 39, and former investment committee members Chew Eng Han, 54, and John Lam, 47.

The money was used to bankroll pop singer Ho Yeow Sun's music career. CHC wanted to use Ms Ho's music to spread the Gospel - through what they called the Crossover Project.

Ms Ho is Kong's wife.

The prosecution has charged that Kong dishonestly and knowingly used church building funds for purposes other than building-related matters.

But Mr Chan said the church was "legally entitled to invest the building fund" to support the Crossover project as it was a church mission.

Tan's lawyer Senior Counsel N. Sreenivasan agreed, saying it was not for the prosecution to say whether Crossover was an "authorised purpose of the church".

"There is a Chinese saying, 'other people eat noodles, don't say hot, hot'... It cannot be for the prosecution to cobble together a case of unauthorised use," he said.

Mr Sreenivasan also addressed prosecution claims that Tan was trying to cast aside criminal responsibility by saying he had relied on the advice of Kong, Chew and auditors. "All (Tan) said is, 'I'm in Singapore, Kong Hee is in the US, he's running the US side of things, he sends the information to me'."

He added that it was "perfectly okay" to accept Chew's recommendations of bond investments without challenging and probing him because "that's not the way friends and fellow church members behave".

Wee's lawyer Senior Counsel Andre Maniam also pointed out that his client had no dishonest intent.

Citing an e-mail Wee had sent to Firna director Wahju Hanafi, Tan and Chew - that contained a business plan - Mr Maniam said this would not have been done if the Firna bonds were a sham with "no real obligations".

He noted that Mr Hanafi had responded with questions, which Tan had answered. "(Tan) never said, 'Wahju, you know, can you get with the plan? This is all for show... You are not investing in anything. You are just passing money on'," Mr Maniam told the Court.

He added that Tan had answered Mr Hanafi's queries seriously.

Meanwhile, lawyers for both John Lam and Sharon Tan also sought to distance their clients from the alleged crime.

Lam's lawyer Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan said his client was just "honestly trying as a volunteer, to fulfil his responsibilities" as a member of the church board and investment committee.

He said that just because Lam was included in a string of e-mails concerning the Xtron bonds did not mean he had a role in the alleged conspiracy.

"Just because somebody is a party sometimes to a long string of e-mails and is asked a specific question... it doesn't mean that he knows about everything in the (e-mail) chain," said Mr Tan.

Sharon Tan's lawyer Paul Seah also said that his client had no motive to take part in the conspiracy as she had nothing to gain and everything to lose.

"She did not take a cut from the proceeds. She was not going to get a pay rise or an extra bonus for what she did," he said, adding that she was just acting as an employee of the church.

The prosecution will respond to these final submissions on Monday, the 139th day of the trial.

This article was first published on Sept 11, 2015.
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