A culture where asking difficult questions was taboo

AFP

Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.

In the context of the City Harvest Church (CHC) case, it can be said that truth is the best weapon against misinformation or allegations.

That was how State Courts Presiding Judge See Kee Oon described the "conspiratorial cover-ups" of CHC's Crossover Project financing in a 270-page written judgment released on Thursday.

On Wednesday, six CHC leaders were convicted of varying counts of criminal breach of trust and/or falsification of accounts.

The six are: CHC founder and senior pastor Kong Hee, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, former board member John Lam, former finance manager Sharon Tan, former accountant Serina Wee and former investment manager Chew Eng Han.

At the centre of their offences lie the illegal methods in which the Crossover Project - fronted by Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, to evangelise through her pop music career - was financed.

Following whistle-blower Roland Poon's allegations that church funds went into Ms Ho's albums, Kong decided to keep the financing of the Crossover Project "discreet".

"This was merely a euphemism for a culture of insecurity mired in secrecy and opaqueness where asking difficult or awkward questions was taboo," said Judge See.

He added that the accused chose to fall back on their biases, beliefs and the people they trusted.

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Judge See said: "The more committed the five accused persons (other than Kong Hee) became to the Crossover vision, the more obedient they became. They fell within the 'circle of trust' which enjoins those who are trusted and trusting to commit themselves unquestioningly to support the cause.

"But when they go further to convince themselves that the end justifies the means, and consciously choose to support both the means and the end, and play an active role in executing those means, their conduct can only be characterised not merely as being misguided but dishonest."

Judge See brought up the ring of Gyges - a mythical artefact mentioned by Greek philosopher Plato that grants its owner the power to become invisible at will - to illustrate the cover-ups that the CHC leaders were guilty of.

"The allure of power that can be exercised in secrecy is difficult to resist. When shrouded under a cloak of invisibility, much like the mythical ring of Gyges, persons in such positions of power have no fear of accountability and tend to become their own worst enemies.

"It has thus been wisely said that the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light, and if they choose not to come into the light, they do so for fear that their deeds will be exposed, as they surely will in time," he said.

The hearing will resume on Nov 20 for the prosecution and defence to make their submissions before sentencing.

The penalty for criminal breach of trust is a life sentence, or up to 20 years in jail and a fine.

For falsifying accounts, the penalty is up to 10 years in jail, a fine, or both.

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The mastermind

Kong Hee, 51
- CHC founder and senior pastor
- Convicted of three counts of criminal breach of trust (CBT)

He conceived the idea of the Crossover Project - with the aim of evangelising - in 1999 and got it moving three years later.

When the project received flak after whistle-blower Roland Poon's allegations, Kong Hee took charge of it and instructed the other church leaders to keep the project's financing "discreet".

"It was from him that the other accused persons sought approval and guidance," said Judge See.

The desire for the project to go "undercover" revealed Kong's personal dominance and deep insecurity, he added.

"He capitalised on CHC's collective fear to galvanise support for the Crossover. He rallied them around the big idea that they (CHC's leaders and by extension the entire church) were being maligned and under attack, and hence had to be discreet.

"That way, all of CHC could become united under a common front. He convinced them that if CHC's leaders believed they had to be discreet in order for the Crossover to succeed, then they ought to simply trust them and not question their motives or reasons."

The decision also shows Kong's desire to "pre-empt enquiry and scrutiny that might lead to the revelation of some discomforting facts", Judge See added.

"He explained in re-examination that he wanted to be discreet about the financing of the Crossover to avoid misconceptions that Sun Ho's music career was 'not real' and that CHC was using church funds in a 'cavalier and flippant' way to promote her career.

"On both counts, the evidence presented at trial suggests that if there were any such perceptions, they were not exactly misconceptions but were in fact much closer to the truth than Kong Hee would have wanted others to believe."

Kong Hee's tendency to "lapse readily into embellishment or exaggeration" meant his credibility had to be approached with caution.

He had said during the trial that "hundreds, if not thousands, responded to the altar call" at Ms Ho's concerts. But Judge See noted that the exact number was never made clear, "and it seemed that he did not know or care about the specifics".

"Kong Hee maintains that he is a pastor and not an expert in legality. But one does not need to be an expert in legality to appreciate certain fundamental aspects of honesty, truth and integrity," he said.

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The follower
Tan Ye Peng, 42
- Deputy senior pastor
- Convicted of six counts of CBT and four of falsification of accounts

In Xtron, which managed Ms Ho Yeow Sun's pop music career, the directors were "mere figureheads".

The decisions were usually made by Kong Hee and occasionally Tan, said the judge.

In order to create the impression that Xtron's decisions were made by its directors, Tan, together with Serina Wee, drafted minutes of supposed meetings between Xtron directors. Wee would ask Tan if he had anything to add to the minutes.

"...The only inference I can draw from all this is that Ye Peng knew that the decisions in the minutes had not truly been made by the Xtron directors but were decisions that he and Serina thought should appear to have been made by the directors," Judge See said.

He acknowledged that Tan may not have been privy to the full range of details related to the financing of the Crossover Project.

Tan's familiar pattern of answers during cross-examination - "did not know how to answer", "didn't focus", "didn't think so deeply" - also showed his deference to Kong and Chew Eng Han, and his unquestioning trust of his fellow CHC members within the inner circle.

"Nevertheless, Ye Peng's ostensible ignorance is hardly a defence to the charges. He chose to support Kong Hee's vision and went about to help find the required solutions to funding problems for the Crossover.

"He may have believed he was acting in CHC's best interests as Kong Hee professed to have done, but I find that he had acted consciously and dishonestly in applying the building fund for a wrong use," the judge said.

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Not a 'mindless minion'

Sharon Tan, 40
- Former finance manager
- Convicted of three counts of CBT and four of falsification of accounts

In her defence, Tan claimed that she was drawn into the tangled web only because of her commitment to CHC's vision for the Crossover Project.

But Judge See found her involvement to be "far beyond that of a mere employee who was dutifully carrying out instructions".

Following in her predecessor Serina Wee's footsteps, Tan continued recording inaccurate or incomplete minutes, repeating the motive for the general approach towards non-disclosure.

The judge said: "Sharon's conduct belies her claims to have acted almost as an automaton or a mindless minion.

"She suggests that there were no sinister motives beyond wanting to be discreet about the Crossover (Project) and not wanting the relationship between CHC and Xtron to be disclosed.

"Yet it is equally, if not more plausible, that the practice came about more insidiously because CHC simply had too much that they needed to hide."

Judge See also noted the "unabashedly conspiratorial" tone of the messages between Tan and Chew Eng Han.

"They communicate and share plans in conniving tones about how to ensure the auditors do not find out what they are doing with the round-tripping scheme.

"They exchange knowing comments with almost perceptibly smug self-satisfaction..." the judge said.

He concluded that Tan's conduct and her statements from various modes of communication are inconsistent with innocence, but are "more indicative of her complicity and dishonesty".

'No unwitting accomplice'
Serina Wee, 38
- Former accountant
- Convicted of six counts of CBT and four of falsification of accounts

She may love her church and be committed to CHC's vision for the Crossover Project.

But this does not mean she is incapable of criminal conduct, said Judge See.

As the administrator of the Crossover Project, Wee was "heavily and inextricably embroiled in the cash flow planning and projection process and was no unwitting accomplice", he pointed out.

"She was a key member of the 'Crossover team', being the one tasked with monitoring Xtron's finances and alerting Kong Hee and Ye Peng about upcoming requirements, cash flow deficits, shortfalls or 'valley points'...

"Her attempts to portray her motives as laudable do not detract from her guilty knowledge," he explained.

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The 'lubricant'
John Lam, 47
- Former board and investment committee member
- Convicted of three counts of CBT

He may not have been one of the crucial cogs in the machinery of conspiracy. But Lam, who was involved in the audit and impairment issues, played an essential role - the "lubricant" to help ease the functioning of the machinery, said Judge See.

"John Lam was happy to play his part and be recognised as an expert in finance and a leader in CHC.

"He chose not to ask too many questions but placed his trust in CHC's leaders such as Kong Hee, Ye Peng and Eng Han...

"As the prosecution submitted, John Lam's role was to 'smooth the way' for execution of the Xtron and Firna BSAs (bond subscription agreements)," the judge said.

The kindred spirit
Chew Eng Han, 55
- Former investment manager
- Convicted of six counts of CBT and four of falsification of accounts

Judge See found Chew, who left CHC in 2013, in some ways to be "kindred spirits" with Kong.

"Eng Han's forceful personality, coupled with his determination and drive to achieve his objectives, was recognised and exploited by Kong Hee," said Judge See. "They tapped on and fuelled each other's drive, one as a spiritual leader and the other as a finance expert.

The judge found that Chew expected no losses from using the building fund to fund the Crossover Project because he thought "everything in City Harvest that was done, succeeded".

"That is surely a bold and sweeping exaggeration that gives the lie to the extravagant overconfidence that characterised his conduct and mindset," he said.


This article was first published on October 24, 2015.
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