Nigella PAs 'lived the high life'
Jurors in the trial of two personal assistants to Nigella Lawson and her former husband Charles Saatchi who are accused of using a company credit card to spend more than £685,000 on themselves have been told the case is "not about other issues of matrimonial discord or drug taking".
Opening the trial, prosecutor Jane Carpenter told jurors that allegations of drug abuse by the TV chef were not central to the trial of Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, who each deny a count of fraud.
She told jurors: "This case is a case about fraud, you may be aware of matters which have been in the press concerning Mr Saatchi and specifically an incident outside a restaurant in June and allegations of drug taking by Mr Saatchi about Miss Lawson more recently.
"We say it's fraud motivated by greed and that's what this trial is about. Not about other issues of matrimonial discord or drug taking.
"This trial, the prosecution say, relates to the high life lived by Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo.
"The sort of life you may often see portrayed in glossy magazines. But we say that they did so not by their own endeavours but in a greedy and fraudulent free-for-all by abusing the trust of their employers in a four-year spending spree."
Ms Carpenter said the sisters were "employed to ensure the smooth running of Miss Lawson and Mr Saatchi's household", with duties that included looking after their children, even sometimes going on holiday alone with the youngsters.
They lived rent-free, with Elisabetta, 41, paid £25,000 a year and Francesca, 35, £28,000.
Miss Lawson, who employed the sisters before her marriage to Saatchi, "acknowleged that they were extremely close to her family", Ms Carpenter added.
Both were given credit cards to buy items for the household and family members with the balance paid off each month by direct debit without being closely scrutinised and an understanding that they would not use it for themselves.
Ms Carpenter said this was often the arrangement for staff.
She added: "For some people, however, the temptation of having a card that they can use with impunity to buy high-value goods is too great.
"It must be a dishonest employee's dream to have a company credit card that's always accepted."
Among the luxury goods the sisters bought were items from Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Miu Miu and Prada, the court heard.
"They travelled the world, staying in top hotels, and spent exorbitant sums of money on designer clothes and accessories," Ms Carpenter said.
"By the time their fraud came to light they had incurred expenditure which was in excess of £685,000.
"Despite the defendants' silence, it's anticipated that they will claim that Mr Saatchi and Miss Lawson permitted them to use the credit cards to buy themselves presents and withdraw cash because of the long hours they worked.
"The defendants' case is that Miss Lawson's alleged drug use and the defendants' knowledge of it materially affected Miss Lawson's attitude to the defendants' spending.
"An intimate atmosphere was created by such knowledge, which affected their relationship.
"Their case is that this expenditure was expressly or implicitly consented to by Miss Lawson.
"The Crown say that, although Mr Saatchi and Miss Lawson were generous employers who treated the sisters very well, it's preposterous that they would authorise such levels of expenditure to personal assistants."
The court heard that Francesca Grillo spent the most money on the credit card, which was registered to Conarco Partnership - one of Mr Saatchi's companies.
She was estimated to have used it to buy goods for herself worth in excess of £580,000 while her older sister's total spend was estimated to be around £105,000.
Ms Carpenter added that Mr Saatchi commented that if Francesa Grillo had been allowed to spend that much money on herself, she would have been paid more than the highest paid employee in any of his companies.
The court heard that the alleged offences came to light in June last year after Saatchi's finance director Rahul Gajjar noticed the high level of spending.
The credit card bills usually came to between £10,000 to £20,000 a month but had risen to more than £50,000 so Mr Gajjar met with both the sisters to discuss the issue, the court heard.
Both women admitted they had been using the cards for personal expenditure and were thanked for their honesty, jurors were told.
Mr Gajjar suggested that if they repaid the money they could put the matter behind them and continue working for the family on reduced salaries, to which the defendants at first agreed.
The court heard that the sisters met Saatchi at the Saatchi Gallery in central London on July 20 to discuss the proposals but negotiations later broke down.
Saatchi met with Francesca on another occasion, but "her attitude was it was humiliating to live in the house on less pay and would rather go to jail", Ms Carpenter said.
Saatchi and Lawson broke up after pictures were published in a newspaper in June showing the millionaire art dealer holding his wife by the throat.
The incident on the terrace of Scott's restaurant in Mayfair, central London, was dismissed by Saatchi as nothing more than "a playful tiff" but he later accepted a police caution for assault.
Saatchi went on to tell the Mail on Sunday that the pictures gave a "wholly different and incorrect implication".
The Grillos, both of Kensington Gardens Square, Bayswater, west 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.
The trial was adjourned to 10am tomorrow with Saatchi due to give evidence at some point during the day.
The trial, at Isleworth Crown Court in west London, heard that the sisters were arrested on August 2 last year but answered "no comment" during interviews with police before eventually being charged with fraud.