Belfast Telegraph

Sisters cleared of Saatchi fraud

Two former personal assistants to Charles Saatchi and his ex-wife Nigella Lawson have been cleared of fraud.

The jury at Isleworth Crown Court, west London, found Italian sisters Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo not guilty of a single count of fraud each.

It was alleged that between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2012, the women committed fraud by abusing their positions as PAs, using a company credit card for personal gain - and were accused of spending more than £685,000 on themselves.

Elisabetta, 41, sometimes referred to in court as Lisa, and Francesca, 35, both of Kensington Gardens Square, Bayswater, west London, had been accused of living the "high life".

The court heard they used credit cards loaned to them by the TV cook and her ex-husband Saatchi to buy designer goods . But the sisters insisted all of their purchases had been authorised.

And in a sensational twist their defence lawyers introduced allegations of drug-taking by Nigella and marital strife involving the celebrity couple.

It was claimed by the defence that there was a culture of secrecy within the high-profile couple's marriage and that the Grillo sisters were aware of Nigella's alleged drug use, while Saatchi was not.

The defence claimed that Elisabetta's knowledge of Nigella's supposed drug use materially affected the cook's attitude towards her spending.

After the three-week trial, the jury of seven men and five women rejected the prosecution's claims that the purchases on the cards had been unauthorised. The jurors had been deliberating for nearly nine hours.

Neither defendant was in court to hear the verdicts. Elisabetta, who was rushed to hospital last night when she stopped breathing following a panic attack, was with her sister in another room in the court, after Elisabetta collapsed again this morning as she arrived at the building.

After hearing the verdicts, Francesca could be seen smiling and talking excitedly in Italian on her phone. Anthony Metzer QC, representing Elisabetta, said his client was "relieved" and "crying her eyes out". Francesca's defence counsel, Karina Arden, said: "We're delighted with the result and the attention that the jury gave to the case over many hours and many days. We're reeling."

During the trial the jury heard details of an email sent by Saatchi in which he accused Nigella of being off her head on drugs and branding her "Higella".

He said in that message: "Of course now the Grillos will get off on the basis that you... were so off your heads on drugs that you allowed the sisters to spend whatever they liked and, yes, I believe every word the Grillos have said, who after all only stole money."

Giving his evidence, he said it was a "terrible, terrible mistake" for that email to become public.

Asked if he believed the chef to have allowed staff to spend what they liked because she was under the influence of drugs, he replied: "Not for a second."

Jurors were told that Elisabetta had not initially planned to use her former boss's alleged drug-taking in her defence in an effort to protect the TV cook. An original defence case statement for Elisabetta from August did not include allegations of Nigella's drug use because she did not want them raised in court as she felt sympathy for her. But an extra statement added in November did include the claims.

The additional statement, read to the court by Mr Metzer, said his client would assert that Nigella "habitually indulged in the use of Class A and Class B drugs in addition to the abuse of prescription drugs" throughout the PA's employment. It went on: "This evidence is of substantial importance as it explains why Ms Lawson initially consented, or appeared to consent, to the expenditure as the defendants were intimately connected to her private life and were aware of the drug use which she wanted to keep from her then-husband Charles Saatchi."

Nigella admitted during the trial that she took cocaine with her late husband, John Diamond, when he found out he had terminal cancer, and on another occasion in July 2010 during her troubled marriage to Saatchi. But the 53-year-old, who also admitted to smoking cannabis, told the court the idea that she is a "drug addict or habitual user of cocaine is absolutely ridiculous".

She described Saatchi as a "brilliant, but brutal man" who subjected her to "intimate terrorism". The food writer claimed her 10-year marriage to Saatchi became so unhappy it drove her to drugs, which made an "intolerable situation tolerable".

In her evidence, Francesca said she "frequently" found rolled up banknotes with white powder on them in Nigella's handbags.

Saatchi was accused of using the trial against the Grillo sisters to "attack" his former wife, from whom he was divorced earlier this year. In her evidence, Nigella accused Saatchi of threatening to "destroy" her.

Mr Metzer said Elisabetta had been caught up in the "crossfire" between the former couple.

A statement from Nigella said: "I am disappointed but unsurprised by this verdict. Over the three-week trial the jury was faced with a ridiculous sideshow of false allegations about drug use which made focus on the actual criminal trial impossible.

"My experience as a witness was deeply disturbing. When false claims about habitual drug use were introduced I did everything possible to ensure the CPS was aware of the sustained background campaign deliberately designed to destroy my reputation.

"During the trial not one witness claimed to see me take drugs and not one of my three assistants was asked about these claims by the defence, despite being cross-examined at length. I did my civic duty, only to be maliciously vilified without the right to respond. I can only hope that my experience will highlight the need for a reform that will give witnesses some rights to rebut false claims made against them.

"Even more harrowing was seeing my children subjected to extreme allegations in court without any real protection or representation. For this I cannot forgive the court process."

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