City Harvest lawyers said case against church is ‘piecemeal’

By Neo Chai Chin – April 9

SINGAPORE — The prosecutors in the trial of six City Harvest Church leaders strung together email correspondence in piecemeal fashion, charging the accused with a “cut and paste” conspiracy to misappropriate church funds, said defence lawyers yesterday as they sought to show that their clients had no case to answer.

They argued that evidence presented by the prosecution was insufficient to support charges against the accused. No losses have been incurred by the church and no prosecution witness called to the stand has been able to say what is, or is not, a sham investment, they added.

The prosecution wrapped up its case on Feb 10, after 42 days of hearings. Five of the six defence lawyers spoke yesterday, with Senior Counsel Andre Maniam, lawyer for Serina Wee, to argue before Chief District Judge See Kee Oon today before the prosecution responds. If the judge rules in favour of the defence, the charges against the accused could be dismissed, or they could be granted a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

The accused, who include church co-founder Kong Hee and its former investment manager Chew Eng Han, who has since left the church, face charges of criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts. They are accused of channelling S$24 million in church building funds into sham bond investments primarily for the music career of Kong’s wife and church co-founder Ho Yeow Sun, and then misappropriating another S$26.6 million to cover up the initial amount.

A key point the defence took issue with was dominion over church funds, an element that must be established for the offence of criminal breach of trust.

Various charges name Kong, his deputy Tan Ye Peng and former board member John Lam as having dominion, but the church’s board of directors consisted of about 10 individuals, said Senior Counsel Michael Khoo, Chew’s lawyer. Board membership in itself does not confer dominion, and the prosecution has failed to show evidence that church building funds had been entrusted to the three accused, said Mr Khoo and Senior Counsel Kannan Ramesh, who represents former finance manager Sharon Tan.

The defence lawyers also argued that the evidence on conspiracy and dishonesty was insufficient. Kong’s lawyer Edwin Tong argued that it has not been proven that his client intended and agreed to commit an illegal act; showing Kong agreed to enter into an investment is not good enough.

Disputing that the investments at the centre of the trial are sham, Lam’s lawyer, Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan, argued that there is no rule against risky or bad investments.

Prosecutors did not lead evidence from production company Xtron’s directors and PT The First National Glassware owner Wahju Hanafi that they did not intend to be bound by the bond service agreements, added Mr Khoo.

The charges of falsification of accounts have “no legs to stand on”, said Senior Counsel N Sreenivasan, who represents Tan Ye Peng.

Prosecutors had asked the church’s auditors from Baker Tilly if red flags would have been raised had they been privy to certain additional information. However, they did not question auditors about what would have been the right way to reflect allegedly falsified figures, Mr Sreenivasan said.

The prosecution’s case has been made up of “emails, emails, emails stitched together”, he charged. Prosecutors could say the accused must be asked to explain the emails, but “at this stage, you do not call the defence because of curiosity”, said Mr Sreenivasan.

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