A Singapore court yesterday sentenced the founder of a popular church to eight years in jail for misappropriating more than $35 million in donations to support his wife’s singing career.
Kong Hee, the founder and senior pastor of City Harvest Church, was found guilty last month on three counts of criminal breach of trust.
Prosecutors said Kong, together with five other church leaders, had siphoned off 24 million Singapore dollars ($17 million) meant for building and investment-related purposes through sham bond investments.
They used another 26 million Singapore dollars ($18 million) to hide the first embezzlement from auditors, a rare case of corruption of such magnitude in the city-state, which has a reputation for being law-abiding.
Kong and his supporters have long argued that City Harvest supported his wife’s singing career so her music would attract more people to the church.
But presiding judge See Kee Onn dismissed that, and stressed the need for a jail term to act as a deterrent.
“This trial did not concern mere lapses of corporate governance,” the judge told a courtroom filled with Kong’s supporters, who had lined up early in the morning to get seats.
“They were effectively putting (church) funds into their own hands, to be used as they needed.”
Defence lawyer Edwin Tong pleaded for leniency, saying Kong has elderly parents, two deaf and mute siblings and a 10-year-old son to care for.
Kong was given the heaviest sentence of the group.
Other sentences ranged from 21 months to six years. Both Kong and his lawyer declined to say whether an appeal was planned.
Many members of Kong’s congregation rallied around the group even as evidence against them surfaced.
They said funds were used to finance the church’s Crossover Project, which was designed to use pop music to reach out to non-believers. Kong’s wife, Ho Yeow Sun, was the face of the project. The money was first pumped into a music production firm and a glass manufacturer, but these companies were owned by longtime churchgoers and the money was ultimately used to support Ho’s music career.
Ho, who did not face any charges, was not in the courtroom yesterday.
The hope was that songs like China Wine - a tune with rapper Wyclef Jean and depicting Ms Ho as a Chinese exotic dancer in Jamaica - would help spread the gospel.
A church-backed music production company aimed at helping her achieve mainstream success in the US was left with millions of dollars in losses when the project failed.
She has released five Mandarin-language albums in Taiwan, and has appeared in several videos.
Known for its slick image and wealth-focused brand of Christianity, City Harvest Church has some 17,500 members in Singapore and branches around the world.