SINGAPORE - The founder of one of Singapore's richest churches was charged in court Wednesday for allegedly syphoning off nearly $19 million of the congregation's money to support his wife's singing career.
Pastor Kong Hee, 47, faced three charges of "criminal breach of trust" relating to the misuse of the funds of the City Harvest Church, one of Singapore's biggest with a membership of over 30,000.
Kong was accused of "dishonestly misappropriating monies" from the church's building fund over several years to support the career of his wife Ho Yeow Sun, who had tried to become a music star in the United States.
The church, which has affiliates in neighboring Malaysia and other countries, is known for services that resemble pop concerts.
The pastor's wife, now in her early 40s, was hoping international stardom would help spread the church's message, according to previous reports in the Singapore media.
Four other church executives were charged Wednesday before a district court for aiding Kong and faced other charges for allegedly attempting to misappropriate millions of dollars from the church's funds.
Kong and the four others were arrested Tuesday by the Commercial Affairs Department, a police unit set up to fight financial crime, and could face life imprisonment as well as a fine if convicted.
They have been suspended from their church positions and are out on bail of Sg$500,000 each, with their passports impounded.
On Tuesday, officials overseeing charities estimated that Kong was involved in misappropriating Sg$23 million ($18 million) in church funds but in the charge sheet filed on Wednesday, the total was raised to Sg$24 million.
According to court documents, the church funds were channelled through "purported bond investments" in two companies, which were in fact "sham transactions".
"They were devised by the accused persons in order to conceal the diversion of the Church's Building Fund to fund Sun Ho's music career... As well as other unauthorised purposes," the documents said.
City Harvest is a Christian group listed as a charity. The arrests came after a two-year police investigation.
Kong, who appeared in a courtroom filled with supporters as well as local media, stood with a grave expression as charges were laid out against him.
After the session, Kong walked out holding hands with his wife, declining to speak to the media as members of his entourage shoved journalists away and tried to prevent photographers from shooting pictures.
The couple became minor celebrities in Singapore after launching the church, which officials estimated had net assets of Sg$103 million in 2009.
Singapore authorities have cracked down on heads of charities found to have been involved in irregularities.
In 2009, a prominent Buddhist monk was jailed for six months for misappropriating hospital funds and lying about it to authorities.