Credit cards 'were Nigella's idea'
Charles Saatchi has told a court it was his ex-wife Nigella Lawson's idea to let their personal assistants have company credit cards.
The millionaire art dealer, who went through a high-profile divorce from the TV cook earlier this year, said he was "very fond" of Italian sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, who are accused of using credit cards loaned to them by the celebrity couple to spend more than £685,000 on themselves.
It is alleged that the two women lived the "high life", spending the money on designer clothes and handbags from Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood.
Asked by prosecutor Jane Carpenter who decided that the defendants should have credit cards, Mr Saatchi said: "My ex-wife, Nigella."
Mr Saatchi told jurors at Isleworth Crown Court in west London that the credit card bills were paid by his company - Conarco Partnership - before he reimbursed it from his own personal account.
"I'm pretty certain the company pays off everything and bills me and I pay back the company for anything that's personal," he said.
He told the court the sisters were originally employed as a nanny by Miss Lawson during her marriage to her late husband, John Diamond.
When Mr Saatchi married the food writer, the Grillos also looked after his own young daughter, Phoebe, who is now 19, but their role changed as the children grew older.
"The children adored them and Nigella was very fond of them and I was very fond of them and we didn't want them to go so they stayed on as housekeepers and general assistants," Mr Saatchi said.
Saatchi, who had to repeatedly be asked to raise his voice for everyone in the packed court room to hear, outlined what was expected of the sisters.
"Housekeeping, shopping, doing the laundry, organising everyone in the household," he said.
Asked by Ms Carpenter if the defendants did anything related to his own business interests, the art dealer said: "If I wanted something collected and there was nobody else. I think not a great deal of work in that sense."
"They were on my company's payroll and then I would reimburse the company for their wages privately," he added.
Saatchi, who asked if he could sit down to give his evidence, repeatedly apologised for not speaking loudly enough.
"I'm so sorry," he said.
"I have a quiet voice. I'll do you a better effort."
Wearing a dark blue suit and black loafers, he shuffled into the courtroom and took the oath in a hushed voice before beginning his evidence just before the lunch break.
Saatchi said the defendants had a "very close" relationship with the children.
He agreed with the prosecution that they accompanied the children on holidays and were permitted to live rent-free.
He said he did not know if a formal employment contract had ever been signed by the two women.
Saatchi recalled a "peculiar" instance one morning when he received a phonecall from a taxi company asking about a booking to Berkshire, when he was not aware of anyone in his household travelling there.
"I said 'are you sure you've got this right?'
"I said 'what name is it booked under?' And they said 'Grillo'," he told the court.
Saatchi said he asked Lawson if Elisabetta, sometimes referred to in court as Lisa, or Francesca, had been sent to do anything for them.
She said they had not, and he said he thought there was "something very peculiar here".
He said he telephoned one of the women, but could not be sure which.
"She said 'I'm at a polo match'.
"I said 'why did you take a taxi out to the country?'
"And she said 'I didn't' and then she said 'I took a taxi to Liverpool Street Station'."
Saatchi said this was not the sort of journey he would have authorised.
Prosecutors claim Elisabetta, 41, and Francesca, 35, lived the "high life" and went on a spending spree buying designer clothes and handbags from Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood.
Jurors previously heard that Francesca spent the most money on her card.
She is alleged to have used it to buy items for herself worth in excess of £580,000. In June last year alone she ran up a £64,000 bill on luxury holidays and designer goods, it is claimed.
The Grillos, both of Kensington Gardens Square, Bayswater, London, deny the charge against them.
It is alleged that, between January 1 2008 and December 31 2012, they committed fraud by abusing their positions as PAs by using a company credit card for personal gain.