City Harvest Church (CHC) is back in the limelight as six of its leaders arrived at the High Court on Thursday (Sep 15) to fight their convictions for misappropriating S$50 million of church funds.
All six have appealed against their convictions and jail terms ranging from 21 months to eight years. The prosecution has also lodged appeals against the six, and are seeking stiffer jail terms in the unprecedented case, which involves the largest amount of charity funds ever misappropriated in Singapore.
It is an unusual case because the six leaders did not pocket the money and did not cause any financial loss to the church.
Prosecutors contended the six leaders had "cultivated and abused the exceptional trust and faith which CHC's members placed in them" by misappropriating millions via "complex and sophisticated transactions ... covered up with numerous cunning deceptions to avoid detection".
John Lam, who was found guilty of three charges for conspiring to commit criminal breach of trust and sentenced to three years' jail, kick-started the appeal on Thursday morning.
His lawyer, Senior Counsel Kenneth Tan, argued Lam had not been in the "core group" which controlled the church's funds, millions of which were channelled into sham investment bonds that were later used to bankroll the secular music career of CHC founder and senior pastor Kong Hee's wife Ho Yeow Sun, popularly known as Sun Ho.
"Mr Lam is not guilty," Mr Tan told the court. A panel of three judges - Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justices Woo Bih Li and Chan Seng Onn - are presiding over the appeal, scheduled to be heard over five days.
Mr Tan pointed to the fact that Lam was found not to have been "intimately involved" in the sham bond investments in two CHC-linked companies, music production firm Xtron and glass manufacturer Firna.
In finding Lam guilty, the judge had made "inferences" that Lam must have known that Kong and their four co-accused controlled the sham investments, Mr Tan said.
He argued this "inference" was not "inevitable and inexorable", and is not enough to hold Lam liable, especially since the judge had conceded that Lam was not intimately involved in the operation. "This is the linchpin of our argument," said Mr Tan, adding that Lam knew as much as his fellow board members, and nothing more.
Given his lack of "operational knowledge" of the conspiracy to misappropriate church funds via sham bond investments, "Lam honestly believed that the bonds were genuine investments", Mr Tan said, and that is why he supported them.
"John Lam had no role in the conspiracy," he added.
Kong's appeal will be heard in the afternoon. Kong was found guilty of three charges for conspiracy to commit criminal breach of trust and sentenced to eight years' jail, the stiffest jail term handed down to any of the six leaders.
His wife, Sun Ho, arrived with him on Thursday morning and was present in court.