SINGAPORE - CITY Harvest Church leaders were in a hurry to refute allegations that they were misusing church funds for Ms Ho Yeow Sun's singing career, it was revealed in court on Thursday.
Shortly after churchgoer Roland Poon made public his worries in January 2003 about how funds were being used, the church commissioned a special audit of its accounts by auditor Foong Daw Ching.
But that was not all.
At a church annual general meeting (AGM) in April that year, it played a video in which Mr Foong declared: "It is my professional opinion that no church funds were ever used in the promotion of Ms Ho's secular singing career."
But on Thursday, the 63-year-old auditor admitted that the video was planned by the church itself and he was merely reading from a script he hardly had time to vet.
"It definitely wasn't me who drafted this statement," he told the court, during the ongoing trial of City Harvest founder Kong Hee and five of his deputies.
They are accused of funnelling millions of dollars of church money to Ms Ho's career and hiding the matter via a series of sham transactions beginning in 2007. The defence argues that the transactions were all above board.
The church also maintains that before 2007, Ms Ho's career was funded by direct donations to the Crossover Project, which was started in 2002 with the aim of using secular music to evangelise.
When repeatedly pressed by the prosecution as to who asked asked him to make the 2003 video statement and who wrote the script, Mr Foong insisted he could not remember, but said it "must be somebody quite senior".
The partner at accounting firm Baker Tilly TFW recalled how he was first asked to appear at the AGM, but he told the church he was not free that day.
City Harvest then dispatched a video crew, armed with a script, to meet Mr Foong at the Church of Singapore, which he attends. The video, he said, was recorded in a "very, very rushed" manner due to his busy schedule.
That was why he made the error of claiming that he was the lead auditor in charge of City Harvest's accounts when it was actually someone else at Baker Tilly.
He said he had overlooked that part of the script as he was more concerned about correcting another sentence, which read that he "certified" no church funds were used for Ms Ho's music.
He changed that to "in my professional opinion".
The prosecution also tried to show that Mr Foong shared a close relationship with City Harvest leaders and gave them specific advice on transactions involving the church's money. The accountant said he only gave "general" advice when church members asked him about property purchases and bond investments.
Deputy Public Prosecutor Mavis Chionh, however, showed him e-mail messages in which he gave advice on issues such as the use of the church building fund and how such transactions should be disclosed. Several of the accused also described in e-mail how "Bro" Foong had given his approval for certain transactions.
But Mr Foong told the court he did not recall the matters discussed in the e-mail or whether he had not been involved.
The DPP presented one e-mail in which former church investment manager Chew Eng Han wrote that Mr Foong had "cleared" a decision to leave out key investment information at annual general meetings.
"The AGM will... not see the portfolio, only a line saying funds invested with fund manager. Only the auditor will see the whole portfolio but that is okay as we have cleared this with Foong," Chew wrote.
Asked about this, Mr Foong replied: "I do not understand this at all... I do not have any authority to clear any such thing."
HE READ FROM A SCRIPT
I was the one taking charge of a special audit during that time... It was a very rushed job because somebody made an allegation that church funds were used to promote Ms Sun Ho's secular singing career. (The church) wanted me to attend the annual general meeting to present my report, but I told them that I could not go because I had my own church meeting.
That's when this person said: 'Oh, in that case, I will send a video crew'. I said: 'Look, that Sunday if you come, I cannot because I may not have time to do it... Really, really very tight, you know, for even a video crew.' So they said: 'No, no, we need to get this done, we need to get this ready for the AGM.'
The moment when they arrived, they showed me that statement, it was only then that I got to read that statement. There was not much time (to vet the text).
- Mr Foong Daw Ching on how he came to record a 2003 video in which he declared that it was his "professional opinion" that no church funds were ever used to promote the music career of Ms Ho Yeow Sun, the wife of City Harvest Church founder Kong Hee