The City Harvest Trial - and my thoughts on it thus far

The City Harvest trial enters its third tranche later today (January 13), with the prosecution continuing to bring its witnesses to the stand. Being in Sydney since last June, I have kept myself abreast of the goings-on of the trial from reports from Straits Time, City News, as well as from “live” updates of friends who have personally attended the trial.

On the eve of the third tranche, it is 3 and 1/2 years since the case first broke out, and once again, my thoughts and prayers are with the six involved. I know the six who stand trial. Some are my leaders. Some are my friends. Some I have worked with. Some I have walked alongside. And my heart and prayers go with them. No one is perfect and we all make mistakes. And while they are the ones who stand trial, behind them is their church family. The 6 take the blows on the blogs and the forums and the mainstream media, who capture ugly mugshots and take uglier potshots at them, and are thrust into the uncomfortable spotlight and unending glare of the media, oft with little regard for the fact that all of them have families and spouses and perhaps more importantly, children.

Here are some of my personal thoughts about the case:

When the case first broke out in May 2010, the newspapers had a field day with headlines that screamed $50 million of church money had been “misappropriated.” And after 3.5 years and two tranches later, the Straits Times reported (on 2 Dec 2013) that “So far, the prosecution has been building its case in the first two tranches of the trial which started in May, questioning close to 10 witnesses, including directors of church-linked companies and church accountants.” Without going into too much technicality (as I reckon City News has done a pretty good job covering the court proceedings), it is rather striking to note that defence lawyer Mr. Sreenivasan has put forth in court that no money was lost by the church. And more interestingly, this was not disputed by the prosecution. For all the “$50 million” supposedly misappropriated, not a cent went into the pockets of the six accused. Nor to Sun Ho, who is apparently in the middle of it all – because if she was the “beneficiary” she would have been hauled to court herself. In fact, she is even cleared by the Commissioner of Charities from her suspension of duties.

So no money was lost to the church, and no individual benefitted from this whole saga.

Am I missing something here?

A City News article at the start of the trial mentioned that what the issue the prosecution had was that the use of the Building Fund was in an “authorised” manner or not.

I do not claim to be a legal or accounting expert – but shouldn’t the determination of the “authorised” usage of the Building Fund be under the purview of the Charities Council? As opposed to a criminal charge? It seems to be an issue with corporate governance more than anything else. Of course I could very well be wrong, and sure this should in all intents and purposes be a case that is taken to court.

However there is a financial aspect that cannot be ignored, and doesn’t seem to sum up.

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The six are accused of mismanagement of church funds, to the tune of $50 million.

The defense has argued no church money has been lost. The prosecution has not refuted this point.

So the church is NOT worse off. But the case has undoubtedly taken a toll on the church – with a drop in attendance correspondingly leading to a decrease in income. Which translates to a belt-tightening that affects its employees, its congregation (in terms of the services that it would provide) and its beneficiaries (the thousands of non-church members, the poor, the elderly, the destitute that the church cares for and provides for).

In June 2012, the Commissioner of Charities has suspended a total of 8 CHC members, consisting of employees of the church. To date, with the exception of Sun, 7 of them remain under suspension – which simply translates into a loss of income. In other words, from what I understand, that is a total of 20 months of NO salary. 20 months x $0. No pay. No bonus. No overtime. No allowance. No NOTHING. Given the Ministry of Manpower’s huge effort to protect employees, I am more than a little appalled that this can happen. The suspension is in no way the church’s wish nor is not paying the employees, but I guess certain things are just out of the church’s hands. On a personal note, since coming to Sydney, I have not drawn a salary for the past 5 months, and have baulked at how quickly our savings have dissipated. The 9 suspended individuals all have families and children so it is definitely tough times for them too.

Apart from having no income, another financial drain has to be the legal costs – which escalate as the case drags on (and on and on). I have read some smart-aleck remarks about the fact that “the innocent have no need to hire top-notch lawyers” – but consider this: their entire life is on the line. Friends who have attended the court sessions have shared that the wit and clarity the six’s lawyers present is testament to the hefty price tag they carry – and with the purported $50 million on the line and the complexities that have surfaces thus far, I would want the best lawyer to defend my case if I were them too!

This financial drain is not only on the part of the six who stand trial, let’s not forget that 3.5 years of PUBLIC MONEY has been spent. On the investigators poring through stacks and stacks of documents and financial reports, the prosecution team, the Charities staff who have conducted their own Inquiry, the Judge presiding over this case and other civil servants.

There will be, by the end of the trial, millions of dollars spents, both from the pockets of the six accused as well as public coffers – and there is really no way to really calculate the true value of what was spent.

The cost of a singing career that would have happened… is also another story.

My husband, who worked in the nonprofit charity sector previously, also has this thought: that with all the spotlight on the church and this case, it might be harder than ever to encourage the private sector to take up board positions in nonprofits. And the irony is, according the the Commissioner of Charities’ Code of Corporate Governance for Charities and IPCs (2011) – the Board of a charity should be ideally made up of non-staff and staff should comprise of not more than 1/3 of the Board (Basic II, Enhanced & Advanced tiers). The Code also gives examples of the core competencies the Board members should possess, preferably in law, finance, business management, human resource, etc.

Out of the six who stand trial, two are professionals in their own fields. No thanks to the high-profile coverage of the trial, it is not unforeseeable that their own careers and career advancement has taken a beating. One of the prosecution’s key witness Mr. Wahyu Hanafi also mentioned in court that due to the case, he too suffered a loss of reputation and a $62 million deal was lost as a result (see report here). Was it just my jaw that dropped when reading that? Maybe I am not too business-savvy, but honestly, reading reports like that would make anyone think twice about (1) being a board member and (2) giving to local charities.

Well, these are just some thoughts I have. I appreciate you reading it, and hopefully it gives you a deeper understanding of the trial as it pans out over the next few weeks, and months.

As with all my posts, this is entirely my opinion (lengthy though it may be – I blame the late hour on my lack of brevity) and in no way reflects the opinion of any organization I am associated with. :)

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