Shuffling of funds 'common business practice'

SINGAPORE - They have been accused of shuffling money around to cover up their alleged dodgy dealings.

But the City Harvest Church members were not misusing funds, their lawyers argued yesterday.

Instead, there were legitimate reasons for the various transactions, some of which were "common" in the business world.

For example, an investment was recalled to raise money to buy a stake in Suntec Singapore, the defence claimed on the 10th day of the trial.

City Harvest founder Kong Hee and five of his deputies are accused of misusing about $50 million in church funds to finance the pop career of Kong's wife and to cover their tracks.

Prosecutors believe this was partly done through sham bonds issued by two firms that were owned or managed by church members.

Several of the accused then allegedly used a technique called "round-tripping", where money is moved around between companies to bamboozle auditors.

For example, they are said to have lent church money to a firm called Firna so it could repay yet more funds that the church had already lent it.

But defence lawyer N. Sreenivasan said this was actually a cash flow "bridging" loan, from the church's investment manager, which was repaid in full. He added that the arrangement was "common" in the business world.

The trial has already heard allegations that church auditors had grown "uncomfortable" with the bonds.

Former leader Chew Eng Han is said to have proposed a plan to "restructure" them.

But Mr Sreenivasan, who represents deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, claimed this was all above board and the various bond transactions had been vetted by reputable law firms.

He said the church and its investment manager, AMAC Capital Partners, suffered no losses from the loans and bond investments, which were returned with interest paid in full.

Indonesian businessman Wahju Hanafi, who owns Firna, told the court he did not object when several of the accused recalled the church's investment money ahead of schedule as they were his pastors.

He also claimed he was not in a position to know how the church management made decisions because he was not an executive member and had never served on its board.

The trial has already heard how the City Harvest leadership had major plans for Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, 41, who was trying to launch a pop career in the United States.

She was meant to go on tour with stars such as Wyclef Jean, Akon and Rihanna, take gongfu and dance lessons and even engage the services of a Jamaican coach.

Her musical foray involved a marketing budget of more than $10 million, "in line with Shakira's marketing budget and less than the budget for Beyonce".

But while Ms Ho's singles - such as her China Wine collaboration with Jean - were produced, the album was never released.

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