SINGAPORE — Lawyer Jeffrey Ong Su Aun, who went missing along with some $33 million held in escrow by his law firm and was later caught in Malaysia, applied to have his bail reviewed on Friday (26 March), claiming that he had been in Malaysia trying to resolve the escrow account issue.
Ong, who was the managing partner of JLC Advisors, appeared in court via video-link looking noticeably skinnier and dressed in a white shirt. He was represented by lawyers Tan Hee Joek, Morgan Lee and Kate Loo.
The lawyer first made headlines when he disappeared after the amount was found to be missing. Earlier court documents revealed that he allegedly fled to Malaysia after being pressed to account for the unauthorised withdrawals of client monies by the partners in his law firm on 13 May 2019.
He became uncontactable three days later and a police report was made about his alleged criminal breach of trust on 21 May.
A warrant of arrest for Ong was then issued on 25 May, leading to his arrest by the Malaysian police in a hotel room four days later. Among his possessions was a stolen Malaysian passport belonging to a Malaysian Chinese man, whose face and age were similar to Ong’s.
Ong was later repatriated to Singapore and charged at the State Courts on 1 June. He was then remanded, with an order of no bail made on 20 June 2019. He has been remanded for nearly two years.
In total, Ong faces 76 charges, including for criminal breach of trust as an attorney, cheating, and forgery. The total amount involved in the charges is $76 million.
When Ong left for Malaysia, there had been no travel restriction or any warrant of arrest issued against him, said Tan. He said his client had gone to Malaysia to help another man resolve the escrow account issue.
Appearing before District Judge (DJ) Terence Tay on Friday, Tan said, "Your honour's decision will have a profound effect on how the applicant will conduct his defence for the present charges he faces."
Both Ong's lawyers and the prosecution, represented by Deputy Public Prosecutors Nicholas Khoo, Esther Wong and Cheng Yuxi, submitted affidavits for the bail review application, with Tan citing from several of the 10 supporting character reference letters provided by Ong's family and friends.
Arguing for bail to be granted, Tan said that Ong's background "strongly points in favour of granting bail".
Ong is a Singapore citizen, who was born and bred in Singapore, studied at the National University of Singapore and later qualified as member of the Bar in 2003. He had no trouble with the law until the present case, said Tan. His parents are retired civil servants and his only elder sibling holds a high senior position in the public service, said the lawyer.
Ong also has a three-year-old son whom he "adores and loves deeply", while other family members and close friends try to keep his morale up with letters and visits, said Tan.
Citing from character reference letters, Tan said the "common theme" in all these letters was that Ong was a "man of his word" with a strong network of family and friends. Coupled with his son, he would likely honour bail conditions should he be granted bail, said the lawyer.
Ong claims to not have personally benefited
Another element of the case was that Ong did not derive personal benefits from his alleged offences, said the lawyer.
"He claimed from day one he never personally benefited from the alleged offences and he has repeated it in (his) affidavits," said the lawyer.
"He disagrees that he confessed to offences. He fully told police what he has done but denied dishonesty and denied it was done to personally benefit himself," Tan said.
On one of the charges, where Ong is accused of embezzling $250,000 from a client's account, he had provided emails that explained what happened to the monies.
While the Commercial Affairs Department had cited examples of Ong allegedly personally gaining from the misappropriation, these were "bare and unsubstantiated" with "no supporting evidence", according to Tan.
As to whether Ong was a flight risk, Tan said that his client was in China around a week before he entered Malaysia where he was arrested.
Ong had taken personal loans of at least $4 million to replenish the escrow account before entering Malaysia. His act of "draining his account" before going to Malaysia, though seemingly suspicious, was related to him buying a cashier's order to pay for stamp duties.
Most people would not flee to Malaysia because of the close cooperation between enforcement authorities in Singapore and Malaysia, Tan said.
"What has happened is that Ong's usual practice when he travels out of the country is, he would bring along his bag of international currencies from his home and when he was found by the Malaysian police he was found with this bag of international currency... about $15,000 in total," he added.
DJ Tay adjourned the case application hearing to 9 April for further oral submissions to be made by Tan. The prosecution is objecting to bail being granted to Ong on the grounds that he is a flight risk. It has yet to make its submissions in court.
The maximum penalty for criminal breach of trust as an attorney is life imprisonment, or a jail term of up to 20 years along with a fine.
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