A founding pastor of a Singapore megachurch was sentenced Friday to eight years behind bars after he was found guilty of fraud and embezzling $35 million in donations to bankroll his wife's pop star career, and then attempting to cover it up.
A court convicted Pastor Kong Hee, along with five other leaders of the evangelical City Harvest Church, over their role in the scheme in October, but Kong received the heftiest sentence. The others received jail terms ranging from 12 months to six years, the Associated Press reported.
The court found Kong and the leaders guilty on three counts of criminal breach of trust relating to the embezzlement of $17 million from congregants meant for building and other investment-related activities. Prosecutors say Kong then misappropriated a further $18.5 million to cover up the first crime from auditors.
Throughout the trial, Kong and the aides maintained that the purpose of the so-called Crossover Project was to broaden the church's appeal and evangelize using secular pop music.
The singer, Ho Yeow Sun, a church leader who became known as the Chinese Geisha of pop and goes by the name Sun Ho, was not charged with wrongdoing. She released at least five albums and several music videos — including one where she bumps and grinds in underwear alongside hip hop artist and songwriter Wyclef Jean — over the course of several years.
In court, Kong said that his wife's success in the US was key to greater impact for the Crossover Project and would give City Harvest Church a "greater open door for the gospel to be preached… in every territory around the globe."
He also claimed that church members were "very, very supportive, very happy, very positive, very grateful that God was able to use her and they kept praying for her, they kept praying for the Crossover Project."
Indeed some members have supported the leaders throughout the case that began in 2012, and said they believed in the Crossover Project to help reach nonbelievers.
Last month, Ho, 43, lamented her part in the saga, telling the online news arm of CHC that she was forced into a world whose values were "poles apart" from those of the church.
"People in the church world were upset with me, asking how could a pastor's wife do this, and people in the entertainment world were suspicious of me," said Ho. "Many times, I asked God how long more I had to do it."
Ho said she thought about quitting the project several times, but that when fans would approach her after a concert, she believed it was "worth it."
"So much happened during the Crossover but one thing I remember most clearly is this: standing on the stage each night, after I share my testimony, and seeing the souls come forward, telling myself, 'It's all worth it, it's all worth it.'"
Kong and Ho founded CHC in 1989, and since then it has grown to a congregation of approximately 17,500 people. The megachurch bases its values on Charismatic and Pentecostal teachings, and has several affiliated churches abroad, including in the US, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan, and Australia.
On Friday, Presiding Judge See Kee Onn dismissed a request from Kong's lawyers for leniency.
"This trial did not concern mere lapses of corporate governance," the judge told a courtroom packed with Kong's supporters. "They were effectively putting (church) funds into their own hands, to be used as they needed."