Auditor 'trying to hide ties with church leaders'

(Left) Lawyer Edwin Tong (foreground), seen here with his client Kong Hee and Kong's wife Ho Yeow Sun, crossed swords with auditor Foong Daw Ching (right) on the witness stand on Monday.

SINGAPORE - Sparks flew in court on Monday as the defence team for City Harvest Church leaders sought to prove auditor Foong Daw Ching was an unreliable and untruthful witness.

It tried to show that, contrary to his earlier claims, Mr Foong had a close relationship with the City Harvest leaders, which involved him giving detailed advice on investments and how to disclose them to church members.

Mr Foong, a partner with Baker Tilly TFW, fought back saying the defence was twisting his words.

Last week, he said he had given only "general" advice to the accused and never interfered with church audits which had been carried out by various Baker Tilly employees assigned to the job over the years.

Mr Foong, 63, is testifying in the case of six City Harvest leaders accused of illegally funnelling money from the church to fund Ms Ho Yeow Sun's singing career and covering it up with a series of sham investments.

But on Monday, Mr Edwin Tong, who represents City Harvest's founder Kong Hee, accused Mr Foong of being untruthful in his testimony, and said that he had, in fact, given instructions to staff on the church's audits.

He showed a series of e-mail messages from October 2007, in which an auditor expressed concern that donations to the church building fund were instead being used to pay for the rental of Singapore Expo for worship services.

Mr Foong, however, replied that the "building fund can be used for this purpose" as long as the church's board of directors agreed it was a temporary measure.

Mr Tong used this to accuse Mr Foong of "overriding" the auditor's views.

"The truth of the matter is that you are trying to distance yourself from the advice you have given to City Harvest and its staff... and you are doing that to cover up the fact that you not only personally oversaw but you advised directly... and that you controlled the views taken by Baker Tilly in relation to City Harvest," he said.


Mr Foong, who appeared visibly angry, retorted several times that he did not agree with Mr Tong's assertions.

He said Mr Tong was painting "an incomplete picture" and at one point in the cross-examination, he snapped: "Hello, hello, hello... don't put words in my mouth, learned counsel."

Mr Tong then grilled Mr Foong on his earlier testimony that he lacked sufficient knowledge to have given in-depth financial and auditing advice to City Harvest leaders.

Mr Foong had previously said he was not good with technical details and did not like reading financial agreements.

But the defence countered that Mr Foong has a "fairly sterling CV" with more than 35 years of auditing experience in Singapore and England. He had also appeared in court in Singapore several times over the past decade as an expert witness.

Mr Tong cited one example of how Mr Foong had prepared net worth reports of an individual in a legal dispute between a married couple between 2000 and 2001.

To do this, Mr Foong would have had to know valuation guidelines in accordance with national auditing standards, he said.

Mr Foong replied that when he serves as an expert witness, he is usually assisted by a group of people where he is "fed" the technical background.

He maintained he is "the weakest among the partners, as far as (knowledge of) financial instruments is concerned".


Church auditor - an expert or not?

Several terse exchanges took place in court on Monday between defence lawyer Edwin Tong, who represents City Harvest founder Kong Hee, and former church auditor Foong Daw Ching. Mr Tong tried to show that the prosecution witness has been trying to distance himself from the advice he had given to the six accused City Harvest leaders.

Exchange #1

Mr Tong: "It is because you are trying to distance yourself that you then suddenly, despite your fairly sterling CV and many years of experience, and many appointments, and accolades, that you suddenly become, at least based on the evidence of the last four days, someone who can descend to saying that he is not very good technically as an auditor, or that you don't even like to read agreements. Can you explain that?"

Mr Foong: "... I think the learned counsel is too presumptuous making that (statement). When I'm an expert in one case, I'm assisted by a group of people, including my consulting partner...

"I'm the weakest among the partners, as far as the financial instrument is concerned... It's not a single person effort you know."

Exchange #2

Mr Tong: "... you have held yourself out to be and you knew that City Harvest saw you as the person having principal conduct of their work?"

Mr Foong: "How they think about me, I do not know. But I do not agree that I have control over the audit."

Exchange #3

Mr Tong: "I suggest to you that the evidence you have just given is not truthful."

Mr Foong: "I disagree your Honour."

About the case

Harvest Church founder Kong Hee and five of his deputies are accused of criminal breach of trust.

They are alleged to have funnelled $24 million meant for the church's new building into sham bond investments in church-linked firms Firna and Xtron Productions.

Prosecutors say City Harvest accounts were then falsified to the tune of $26.6 million so the bonds appeared to have been "redeemed". This was allegedly carried out to fund the pop music career of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun.

The defence will continue its cross-examination of auditor Foong Daw Ching, a partner at accounting firm Baker Tilly TFW, today.

The firm or its associated companies audited Xtron and the church.

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