CHC leaders' sentences reduced on less serious charges
Court of Appeal finds City Harvest Church leaders guilty of less serious criminal breach of trust charge
One word can make a world of difference.
For the six City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders, whose appeals were heard yesterday, it means spending less time in jail.
Yesterday, the Court of Appeal reduced their sentences after finding them guilty of a less serious charge of criminal breach of trust (CBT) in a split decision.
Two of the three judges, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice Woo Bih Li, did not see the accused as "agents" - a role implying an external relationship with the church.
The six were originally convicted of engaging in a conspiracy to commit CBT by an agent under section 409 of the Penal Code. But the two judges found that the six did not fall within the meaning of "agent" under section 409 and should have been convicted of CBT only under section 406.
Justice Chan Seng Onn disagreed with the majority's interpretation that section 409 applies only to professional agents.
With the reduced CBT charge that provides for up to seven years in jail - down from the original of up to 20 years in jail and a fine - CHC founder Kong Hee, 52, was sentenced to 3½ years instead of the initial eight years. The other five also received reduced sentences:
- Former deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 44: From 5½ years' jail to three years and two months.
- Former fund manager Chew Eng Han, 56: From six years to three years and four months.
- Former finance manager Serina Wee, 40: From five years to 2½ years.
- Former finance committee member John Lam, 49: From three years to 1½ years.
- Former finance manager Sharon Tan, 41: From 21 months to seven months.
The verdict was delivered to a packed courtroom, who started queueing as early as 1.30am yesterday to witness what could be the end to the high-profile case.
In October 2015, the six CHC leaders were convicted of misappropriating millions of church funds to fuel the music career of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun, in a church mission known as the Crossover Project.
The court found that they had invested $24 million from CHC's building fund in bogus bonds from music production firm Xtron and glass-maker Firna, and the money was used to fund the Crossover Project.
Later, another $26 million was used to cover up the initial misdeed.
In the written judgment, Justice Chao said: "The common thread that unites persons such as bankers, merchants, factors, brokers and attorneys is that they act in a certain trusted trade, profession, office or occupation which the public relies on or utilises to facilitate the course of commercial dealings when they act in the way of their business, carrying out or performing those trusted trades, professions, offices or occupations.
"The term 'agent' must therefore be interpreted in that light."
He added that each of those capacities points to an external relationship between the person who is entrusting the property and the person who is being entrusted the property - a stark contrast to the "internal relationship" that CHC management board members entrusted with CHC property shared with the church.
With the charges reduced, the panel re-approached the sentences by taking into account earlier findings, the relevant aggravating and mitigating factors, and the appellants' relative culpability where applicable.
"Although the sums involved are indeed substantial, we, in the majority, find that there are a number of significant mitigating factors to which due consideration must be given," said Justice Chao, adding that the case should not be viewed as a "sinister and malicious attempt" to strip the church of funds for their own purposes.
Kong was found to be the most culpable for his role as the "ultimate leader" for the Crossover and the other five accused.
Justice Chao said: "It is clear from the circumstances of this case that Kong Hee was one of the main players - if not the main player - who had set things in motion in relation to the sham investment charges where he had directed and influenced the other appellants, in particular Eng Han, to come up with plans when increased funding for the Crossover was needed."