Nigella Lawson's ex-husband testifies at aides' fraud trial

CNN
Friday, November 29, 2013 - 9:34am

Charles Saatchi, the millionaire ex-husband of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson, took the stand Friday at the trial of two former personal assistants accused of defrauding the couple.

The former assistants, Italian sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, deny embezzling hundreds of thousands of pounds on company credit cards.

Saatchi described the sisters' roles as housekeeping, organizing the household and helping out with any tasks needed by the family. They were first employed by Lawson and then by his company, he said.

Saatchi, an art collector, said he was aware the two sisters were given credit cards in order to pay for household expenses. This was his ex-wife's idea, he told the court in west London.

Asked about the sisters' role when Lawson's children grew older, Saatchi said: "I'm very fond of Francesca and Lisa (Elisabetta) and they were part of our family ... The children were fond of them, we didn't want them to go, so they stayed with us as housekeepers and for general assistance."

The first witness in the case, Rahul Gajjar, an accountant for Saatchi, told the court Thursday that Francesca had 64,336.97 pounds ($104,500) in expenses on her company credit card in June 2012.

Among the expenses were purchases from designer labels Prada, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton and Chloe, as well as hotel bills and plane tickets.

The court heard that Francesca's average monthly expenditures were 48,000 pounds and Elisabetta's were 28,000 pounds, whereas other personal assistants to Saatchi, a well-known art collector, spent a maximum of 8,000 pounds a month.

The sisters were expected to make purchases for the family on the company credit card, he said, as part of their job helping the couple with personal and work-related matters.

But the prosecution says they spent large sums on money on themselves.

Drug use claims

Isleworth Crown Court heard at a pretrial hearing for the sisters this week that Lawson and Saatchi had a "culture of secrecy" around their marriage.

In the hearing, the defense read an e-mail from Saatchi to Lawson about the allegedly embezzled money, saying the assistants would "get off" because, he wrote, Lawson was using cocaine and marijuana on a daily basis and "allowed the sisters to spend whatever they liked."

Representatives for Lawson declined to comment on the allegations, citing the ongoing court proceedings.

The defense also read a statement from Saatchi saying he learned of Lawson's alleged drug use in June, around the time the couple were photographed in a restaurant having an argument.

In the photos, which were splashed across the front pages of national newspapers at the time, Saatchi is seen with his hand around Lawson's throat. Saatchi accepted a police caution for assault, and the couple announced they would divorce soon afterward.

The defense alleged that the e-mails showed both Saatchi and Lawson had attempted a "manipulation of the court" and that the case should be thrown out. The judge ruled the trial would proceed.

The prosecution told the court Wednesday that the two sisters spent about 685,000 pounds ($1.1 million) on company credit cards over the course of four years, according to UK media reports.

Lawson, whose culinary skills and flirtatious manner have long entranced UK audiences, has also appeared as a judge on ABC show "The Taste" in the United States. A second season of the show is due to air in January.

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