Thursday, August 7, 2014

5 things to know about the City Harvest trial

Published on Jul 15, 2014

1) What is it about?

In a few words: Music and money. Prosecutors believe church founder Kong Hee and five others misused about $50 million of the church's money between January 2007 and October 2009.

2) Where does the music part come in?

$24 million allegedly went to support Kong's wife Ms Ho Yeow Sun's pop music career. Another $26.6 million was used to cover up the first amount through concocted deals, say prosecutors.

Defence lawyers, however, say Ms Ho's music was widely accepted within the church as a means to evangelise, so "church money was used for church purposes".

They also say that, contrary to prosecution claims, the $26.6 million was used to meet legitimate church needs.

Prosecutors believe a rental payment from the church, for example, was contrived by the accused to disguise the first misused sum, while the defence says the church needed a place for its services.

3) So what's going on with the trial now?

Prosecutors have wrapped up their case and the defence is now taking its turn. All six defendants will take the stand, starting with former church board member John Lam Leng Hung. Church founder Kong Hee will be next. Trial dates have been set aside from now until next April.

4) What evidence has been presented so far?

Prosecutors have built their case partly on a mass of e-mails and text messages written by Kong and the others. These, the prosecutors believe, show the accused intended to defraud the church and deceive its auditors.

The paper trail, for example, allegedly shows how several of the accused essentially conspired with the directors of two church-friendly companies to offer sham investments to the church. This was so they could access the money in the church's Building Fund, which had restricted uses, say prosecutors.

The defence lawyers say the prosecutors misinterpreted the communications or took them out of context.

5) Did anything scandalous happen during the trial?

Not scandalous, exactly, but there has been plenty of drama.

One of the accused, former church investment manager Chew Eng Han, quit City Harvest last June (2013) and has been keeping apart from the others in court. He has also discharged his lawyer and is now defending himself.

He wrote in a blog post that he had been tolerating "betrayal, slander, ingratitude, denial and lies, manipulation and control, greed, pride, hypocrisy, abuse of authority, practice of favoritism and different standards".

The case has also thrown a spotlight on the church's audit firm Baker Tilly TFW. It approved audit reports that included the alleged sham transactions, although employees who took the stand said information had been kept from them.

One particularly awkward moment occurred when audit manager Foong Ai Fang testified. Although she was the one responsible for the City Harvest audits' field work, she said she had no idea her brother Foong Daw Ching - the firm's former managing partner - met several of the accused and gave them advice.

Former finance manager Serina Wee, who is in the dock, has also emerged as trial's style icon. Wee recently opened a blogshop selling clothes with long-time friend and church finance manager Sharon Tan, who is also on trial.

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