City Harvest trial: Leaders accused of hiding ties with Xtron

Serina Wee was allegedly worried about how to present the close connection between the church and Xtron to the church's auditors and members.

SINGAPORE - City Harvest Church leaders accused of misusing the church's funds told auditors one thing and their parishioners another.

On Tuesday, the State tried to prove this by producing a series of e-mail messages to show that three of the accused - Serina Wee, who was Xtron's accountant, Chew Eng Han and Tan Ye Peng - were in cahoots to hide details and deflect questions about the church's connection with Xtron, even from the church's own members.

One set in 2008 had to do with the church paying exorbitant rent for a Riverwalk property from the company. "I feel it's hard to justify to the members why CHC (City Harvest Church) needs to lose $480,000 a year from the arrangement," said Wee.

This amount was meant to help Xtron pay off a bank loan instalment which members did not know about, Wee said in her e-mail.

Wee, Chew and Tan were also worried about how to present the two entities' close connection to the church's auditors and members.

"If anyone asks about the profits made (by Xtron from the Riverwalk rental during the City Harvest Church board meeting), then we should address it and say that Xtron is under CHC control and therefore any profits will be well managed by us for future works," wrote Chew.

Tan then replied: "Are we allowed to say that Xtron is under CHC control?"

To which Chew replied: "Not in such bold terms, but we should let our members have assurance that Xtron's gains will be channelled into projects in line with the CHC vision."

He added: "The only problem of using the word 'control' is that if it gets to the auditors, they may get ultra-conservative and say we own Xtron, and therefore we need to consolidate (the two). So we need to find a balance between what we tell our AGM - annual general meeting - (they want full control) and what we tell auditors (we don't want them to think we control Xtron)."

In another set of e-mail messages in 2008, Wee also told church founder Kong Hee, Tan and Chew that she had received advice from a fellow church member: "We can talk about Xtron to the members in the (extraordinary general meeting) but don't minute down everything. Just minute down necessary portions so as to not show too close a relationship or control over Xtron."

Xtron is one of two companies accused of helping the megachurch's leaders to funnel church funds illegally to bankroll pastor-singer Ho Yeow Sun's music career. It managed Ms Ho from 2003 to 2008.

Kong, who is Ms Ho's husband, and five of his deputies were charged last year with conspiring to cheat the church of millions of dollars. They allegedly misused $24 million of church funds to finance Ms Ho's singing ambitions, and then purportedly took another $26 million to cover up the first amount.

On Tuesday, Deputy Public Prosecutor Christopher Ong also highlighted several Xtron financial transactions in 2009 that he suggested were part of a cover-up of the misuse of church funds.

In November that year, the church had given Xtron about $15 million as part of an eight-year rental agreement. Less than a month later, Xtron invested about $11.5 million in bonds issued by Firna, the other firm accused of helping with the cover- up.

DPP Ong pointed out that just months after the church gave Xtron the rental fee, it bought a stake in Suntec City. This made the rental agreement redundant and it was terminated shortly afterward.

Xtron also should have used the rental fee to fulfil its side of the agreement instead of investing in Firna's bonds, Mr Ong said.

When asked, Xtron director Choong Kar Weng said he was not aware of City Harvest's impending purchase of the Suntec property, and added that the Firna bond purchase was a good investment as it would have reaped interest. "If I needed to show proof of funds (for other deals), I could have mortgaged the bonds, for example," he said.

He admitted under questioning, however, that the suggestion to invest in the Firna bonds had come from Chew Eng Han, one of the accused, and was furthermore part of a larger plan to satisfy the church's auditors who had grown "uncomfortable" with bonds it had purchased.

"Eng Han drew a diagram... The Firna bonds were part of the diagram. To me, the overall purpose was because the auditors of CHC were not comfortable with the bonds, that's why there was a need to restructure the bonds and the debt."

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