CHC leaders' sentences half of what prosecutors asked for

PHOTO: The New Paper

The prosecutors called for stiff sentences for each of the six convicted City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders.

But the sentences meted out yesterday afternoon to each of the leaders were half of what the prosecutors had asked for.

In delivering his oral judgment yesterday, Judge See Kee Oon explained: "It is important as a matter of sentencing policy to deter generally people who are entrusted with charity monies from misusing those monies.

"I am, however, also mindful that deterrence does not simply entail the imposition of disproportionately crushing sentences."

The judge had found them guilty on Oct 21 for misusing some $50 million in church funds. They had misappropriated $24 million, funnelling it into bogus investments that funded the singing career of church founder Kong Hee's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun. Later, another $26 million was used to cover their tracks.

The judge said: "I sought to carefully calibrate the sentences so as to ensure that they are proportionate to each accused person's role and culpability, having regard to the seriousness of the offences."

Judge See sentenced the church leaders - senior pastor Kong, 51; former board and investment committee member John Lam, 47; deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 43; former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55; former finance managers Serina Wee, 38; and Sharon Tan, 40 - to jail terms that ranged from 21 months to eight years.

As the case involved breaches of trust and misuse of donors' monies - including large sums given for a specific purpose and held by CHC as a charity - there is a need to underpin the court's sentencing approach with the need for general deterrence, the judge said.

Wider issues of personal integrity, transparency and accountability in relation to the custody and use of charity monies, particularly where massive sums of money are involved, must also be adequately considered, he added.

PROSECUTION'S PRECEDENTS 'IRRELEVANT'

The judge also found the precedents cited by the prosecution, some of which called for sentences of 20 to 40 years' jail, largely irrelevant.

Instead of factoring in "sentencing discounts" like what the prosecution suggested, the judge factored in what he felt were mitigating features: the lack of any personal wrongful gain, the lack of any motive of self-interest or enrichment, and the absence of an intent to cause permanent loss and the return of the monies ultimately to CHC.

"I do not believe that they had intended to cause long-term harm to CHC through the permanent deprivation of those funds.

"Thus I had characterised their plans broadly as being akin to a 'temporary loan' arrangement which was unlawful as they were effectively putting CHC's funds into their own hands to use as they needed for the purposes of the Crossover (Project) and for round-tripping.

"These were plainly not authorised purposes for the use of CHC's funds," he said.

What they received

EIGHT YEARS' JAIL: KONG HEE, 51

Founder and senior pastor of City Harvest Church (CHC)

Guilty of three charges of criminal breach of trust.

What the prosecution had asked for: 11 to 12 years' jail

SIX YEARS' JAIL: CHEW ENG HAN, 55

Former CHC fund manager

Guilty of six charges of criminal breach of trust and four charges of falsification of accounts.

What the prosecution had asked for: 11 to 12 years' jail

5 1/2 YEARS' JAIL: TAN YE PENG, 43

Deputy senior pastor

Guilty of six charges of criminal breach of trust and four charges of falsification of accounts.

What the prosecution had asked for: 11 to 12 years' jail

FIVE YEARS' JAIL: SERINA WEE, 38

Former CHC finance manager

Guilty of six charges of criminal breach of trust and four charges of falsification of accounts.

What the prosecution had asked for: 11 to 12 years' jail

THREE YEARS' JAIL: JOHN LAM, 47

Former board and investment committee member

Guilty of three charges of criminal breach of trust.

What the prosecution had asked for: Eight to nine years' jail

21 MONTHS' JAIL: SHARON TAN, 40

Former CHC finance manager

Guilty of three charges of criminal breach of trust and four charges of falsification of accounts.

What the prosecution had asked for: Five to six years

*The start of their sentences was deferred until Jan 11 next year.

Prosecution v defence on...

GOOD CHARACTER

Kong Hee's lawyer, Mr Edwin Tong: "All of them love the church and meant no harm to the church whatsoever. Every cent that was drawn out went to the church. None of the accused benefited from the proceeds in a wrongful manner."

Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong: "Your Honour, if I may put it another way, regarding the accused's claims of good character, how much weight can a claim to have been a good shepherd be given if the person was also a wolf at the same time?"

LENGTH OF SUGGESTED SENTENCE

Sharon Tan's lawyer, Mr Paul Seah: "Given that the prosecution has inaccurately focused solely on the quantum of the monies misappropriated as the starting point for sentences under Section 409 of the Penal Code 83, the application of the sentencing precedents which the prosecution has cited... is entirely questionable."

DPP Ong: "... Had this case been motivated by personal gain, the sentences that the prosecution would be asking for today would be far higher than what we have submitted."

MISUSED FUNDS

John Lam's lawyer, Mr Kenneth Tan (referring to a letter signed by 173 City Harvest Church (CHC) members appealing for leniency): "They believe (the six accused) wanted to fulfil the Crossover mission and in their zeal, they overstepped certain boundaries."

DPP Ong rebutted: "Your Honour, we would descend into chaos if the misuse of charity funds can be simply whitewashed away as a mere trifling misstep or even understandable over-zealousness based merely on the alleged personal motives or beliefs of certain individuals."

MOTIVES

Serina Wee's lawyer, Mr Andre Maniam: "Greed is when a person steals a loaf of bread because he's greedy. Need is when a person steals a loaf of bread because he's hungry, or even starving... What happens if he steals bread for Sunday communion because church members are starving?"

DPP Ong: "$24 million would buy a lot of bread for a man who was starving. This is clearly not a situation where they had to spend $24 million and were compelled to take that money from the Building Fund and misuse it."

SHADES OF GREY

John Lam's lawyer, Mr Kenneth Tan: "If there is grey for an offence, this offence is a lighter shade of grey because of the circumstances. In this shade, you have John, who's a volunteer who failed to (probe), and fell into an error of ingrained trust... That shade of grey becomes far paler..."

DPP Ong: "In this case, the accused persons had abused the trust and faith which CHC's members placed in them... There is nothing grey or ambiguous about what they have done."


This article was first published on November 21, 2015.
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