Singapore

Kong Hee and Sun Ho paid for expenses from account made up of "love gift" donations

City Harvest Church founder and wife paid for expenses from multi-purpose account made up of church members' donations

Travel expenditure that ran into the hundreds of thousands.

Hair, make-up and medical costs that hit more than $100,000.

Although City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee and his wife Ho Yeow Sun had struck their names off the church payroll in 2005, they had "love gifts" from a few churchgoers, which paid for such expenses.

As a singer, Ms Ho was earning more than $400,000 a year and this came from these gifts.

But the donors who gave the gifts did not know that Ms Ho had earned so much, Kong admitted in court.

The New Paper on Sunday examined court documents and learnt that the couple earned a total of around $1.4 million from 2006 to 2009 from her music artiste salary, royalties and bonuses.

But this money did not come from her artiste management firms, Xtron Productions and Ultimate Assets, as they wanted to reinvest the earnings back into the companies.

Instead, the monies were transferred to Kong and Ms Ho from a fund known as the multi-purpose account (MPA), made up of "love gifts" from church members, Kong said in court.

The MPA, which was set up in 2006 and closed in 2010, is shrouded in secrecy.

Only a handful of church members who were closest to Kong Hee knew of its existence. (See report on facing page.)

Revelations about the MPA were made during court proceedings.

Kong said in court: "For the MPA, it is more for the livelihood of me and Sun... and for other non-music production expenses in the US because we are off the church's salary."

One document showed what the money was spent on in that period - more than $300,000 was spent on travel, more than $100,000 on food and close to $100,000 on hair and make-up.

All these were paid for by around 40 of the couple's closest supporters, whose regular donations contributed nearly $3 million to the fund from 2006 to 2009.

Some of those who gave "love gifts" cut back on tithes to the church while others stopped completely, according to the Commissioner of Charities (COC) inquiry in 2012.

COC found that about $600,000 was purportedly spent by Kong Hee and $3 million by Sun Ho from the MPA between April 2007 and March 2010.

Kong, who had told the media in 2005 his salary was $8,000 a month before he took himself off the payroll that year, also earned an average of US$360,000 (S$500,000) per year from his speaking engagements. He also made money from merchandise sales.

TROUBLE

Globally, love gifts have landed church leaders in trouble over tax evasion and fraud charges.

In Charlotte, US, Reverend Anthony Jinwright and his wife Harriet of the Greater Salem City of God church were jailed in 2009 after their expensive cars and vacations were found to be paid for by "love gifts" from the church.

MPA donor and fellow accused Chew Eng Han accused Kong of being more interested in personal gain than the interests of the church by pointing out discrepancies in the MPA in court. (See report on facing page.)

While most MPA donors have kept silent, The New Paper on Sunday tracked down blogger Lu Jiahui, who claimed to be one.

The mother of three, whose blog is called Mum's The Word, tells TNPS: "The choice was given to us and it was also explained to us where the money would go.

"I made the decision that it was okay, because this is my money and I know where I want it to go. I gave with my free will. No one forced me to do it."

She declines to reveal how much she donated to the MPA over the years, but claims it did not affect her tithes to the church.

Ms Lu decided to write about MPA on her blog to defend her former pastor against Chew's allegations.

"I think I was the only one to come out publicly to say I am an MPA donor. Why? Because if I didn't, people would just be hearing about it from Eng Han."

She explains her decision to donate to the account, knowing that it was meant to pay for Kong's and Sun's living expenses.

Ms Lu says: "Think about this as though you are contributing to your boss' birthday and you can give however much you want. Someone sets up a birthday fund for the office and the money is put in there.

"Eventually, whether the money is spent on the birthday cake or the decorations is besides the point. I just know that I gave the money away as a birthday present, and I trust the person to handle it."

Donors didn't know where money went

All the donors, they knew that it's a freewill giving, we didn't coerce them, we didn't force them... We always treated this as a third-party fund with accountability... We do not use it in a cavalier fashion.

- Kong Hee


The multi-purpose account (MPA) was set up in 2006 to support the livelihoods of City Harvest Church (CHC) founder Kong Hee and his wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun.

This private fund was financed by 28 couples and a few other individuals but its full amount or how the money was used was never fully disclosed - not even to the donors.

This means they allegedly did not know that Ms Ho pocketed about $450,000 in "salaries, bonuses and royalties" from the MPA each year from 2007 till 2009.

This was Kong's own admission in court in August last year during the criminal trial involving him and five other CHC leaders.

Kong told the court - as former CHC fund manager Chew Eng Han cross-examined him - that he and Ms Ho went off the church's payroll in 2005.

The MPA was later created and funded by about 40 donors, including Chew. They deposited over $700,000 into the MPA each year from 2007 to 2009.

Kong said: "All the donors, they knew that it's a freewill giving, we didn't coerce them, we didn't force them.

"Some of them did indicate that we should use it for nothing else except for our own livelihood. We always treated this as a third-party fund with accountability... We do not use it in a cavalier fashion."

He added that the money was primarily used for his wife and his livelihood as well as for the Crossover Project's expenses.

But Chew accused Kong of withholding the account's full details in 2010 by hiding the royalties, salaries and bonuses from the spreadsheet showed to donors and showing a deficit instead, so they would be spurred to give more money.

Chew said: "You defrauded the MPA givers by hiding the royalties and the salaries and the bonuses from the spreadsheet which you showed to them, so that they would be emotionally led to contribute more to you and to Sun."

Kong said his wife did not want the joint venture between her artist management company and Justin Hertz Management to pay for her royalties so the money could be maximised for the music album production.

Kong also claimed Xtron was tight with cash so his wife had to rely on the MPA as well. His wife then took out what she would have earned from the MPA instead of Xtron's accounts.

He also said he hid the figures from donors in 2008 because he did not have a chance to check with his wife whether she was comfortable revealing her salaries and royalties.

Kong said: "We do have a culture in CHC, as in many companies, that we keep our income as confidential."

The donors stopped giving to the MPA in 2010 after the Commercial Affairs Department's raid on CHC.

Gift or income?

While donations to a church fund or a private trust fund are not taxed, the "love gifts" received by religious leaders are, IRAS tells The New Paper on Sunday.

Corporate lawyer Robson Lee from Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, explains: "The donors are not relatives, they are church devotees.

"The only reason why they give (to the MPA) is because they are the pastors... Otherwise, they would donate to the church.

"Unless the fund is open to all other devotees, for example, to help out in mishaps in their lives, then you can say that this is an exclusive pool of money meant solely for one or two persons.

"Then, this (MPA) would be an income structure instead of a gift... Such a 'love gift' system should not be exempted from review by inland revenue."

About the case

The six accused in the City Harvest Church (CHC) trial were convicted of all charges after Judge See Kee Oon said the evidence presented had overwhelmingly showed they had all acted dishonestly.

The accused - comprising founder Kong Hee, 51, former board member John Lam, 47, former finance manager Sharon Tan, 39, ex-fund manager Chew Eng Han, 55, deputy senior pastor Tan Ye Peng, 42, and former finance manager Serina Wee, 38 - were found guilty of criminal breach of trust and/or falsifying accounts.

At the end of the 140-day trial that stretched over two years, the court found them guilty of funnelling $24 million in church building funds into sham bond investments to bankroll the music ambitions of Kong's wife, Ms Ho Yeow Sun.

Later, they used a further $26 million to cover their tracks.

All six will appear in court again on Nov 20.

City Harvest trialSun Hokong heemulti-purpose accountlovedonations