Saatchi assistant 'not a fantasist'

Salisbury Journal: Francesca Grillo said Nigella Lawson had used one of her recipes in her latest cookbook Francesca Grillo said Nigella Lawson had used one of her recipes in her latest cookbook

A former personal assistant of Nigella Lawson and Charles Saatchi, who is accused of defrauding the couple, has denied she was a fantasist and a "shopaholic".

Francesca Grillo, 35, and her sister Elisabetta, 41, are alleged to have spent £685,000 on credit cards belonging to the TV cook and her multimillionaire art dealer ex-husband.

Isleworth Crown Court in west London has heard that the siblings bought designer clothes, shoes and luxury holidays on the cards.

The younger sister was accused by prosecutor Jane Carpenter of lying about her expenditure on a work credit card having been authorised by Saatchi and Nigella, who divorced earlier this year.

"I haven't lied to this court," said Grillo. "I don't think I'm a fantasist as Ms Lawson suggested. I would have to disagree."

Ms Carpenter said Grillo had admitted being a "shopaholic" in a phone call after the allegations of fraud came to light, but the defendant said of that claim: "I don't think so."

Addressing claims that she took advantage of her position and felt she was "on to a good thing", Grillo replied: "I didn't have to feel like I was part of a good thing.

"They were my family. I was very, very lucky. They loved me, I loved them back. Despite being here defending myself... I still have feelings for them."

The seven men and five women on the jury were shown pages from Nigella's latest cookbook, Nigellissima, for which Grillo said she and her sister contributed a recipe for lasagne which was published.

"She refers to two friends from Calabria, or two sisters," added Grillo.

She claimed that during her trips to her native Italy while employed by the family, she would use the company card to buy food items and props for Nigella which were used in the book.

Asked why she offered to pay back money to the Saatchi-Lawson family when she was confronted with allegations of misusing the credit card, Grillo said she had hoped things would get back to normal.

She added: "It's difficult for people to understand how close I was to these people... It's not like any person down the street. You want to make things better."

Asked, via a written question from the jury, about the nature of the authorisation for using company cards, Grillo replied: "It would either be Nigella or Charles, or an ongoing authorisation.

"There was no need (to seek repeated authorisation on some purchases).

"When running a house for someone like Charles, he wouldn't want to run it like clockwork.

"He doesn't want to be bothered every minute. He trusts me."

The Grillos, of Kensington Gardens Square, Bayswater, west London, each deny a single count of committing fraud by using a company credit card for personal gain between January 1 2008 and December 31 last year.

Judge Robin Johnson, giving the jury directions of law, told them they had to decide whether the Grillos had behaved dishonestly.

"If it was dishonest, you must decide if the defendant realised what she was doing was dishonest," he said, adding that authorisation for purchases could have been specific or implied.

Ms Carpenter, making her closing speech, stressed that the jury had to remember the sisters were the ones facing charges.

"It might have seemed at times that other people were on trial," she told them, saying that she was referring to Saatchi and Nigella.

She described it as "utter nonsense" that the celebrity pair would authorise the Grillos' alleged level of personal expenditure.

The prosecutor said: "Did they (the defendants) abuse their positions while working in Mr Saatchi's and Ms Lawson's household?

"Did they do that for their own personal gain?

"Clearly you will know that the Crown say they were spending more as time passed, as they grew bolder and greedier."

Ms Carpenter said it was a feature of the Italians' defence that because the Grillo sisters were "part of the family, they were entitled to spend in the same way the family did".

"That, you must appreciate, is utter rubbish and cannot possibly have been the case," she said.

"Just because Mr Saatchi is a very wealthy man obviously does not mean he should be defrauded by his staff, specifically Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo."

Ms Carpenter said Nigella had given evidence about her marriage and about previous drug-taking "with much clarity and with much detail".

"She made it abundantly clear she had not sanctioned the extraordinary levels of spending you see on the cards," she added.

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