Nigella Lawson’s aides, Elisabetta (left) and Francesca Grillo, outside a London court on Friday. (AP)
London, Dec. 20: The trial of two Italian sisters who had worked as assistants to the TV chef Nigella Lawson and her multi-millionaire art dealer husband Charles Saatchi ended dramatically and unexpectedly today with both women acquitted of fraud charges.
It was claimed that Francesca Grillo, 35, and her sister, Elisabetta, 41, had used a company card to lavish personal goods and services on themselves.
It was alleged that between January 1, 2008, and December 31, 2012, the two 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.
But at Isleworth Crown Court today, after nine hours of deliberations by a jury of seven men and five women, they were found not guilty of one count each of defrauding their employers.
The result will come as something of a shock for the nation which has been following a case that has had wide TV coverage as well as almost daily front page treatment.
Nigella admitted during the three-week trial that she had taken cocaine, after allegations of drug use arose as part of the defence case.
But Scotland Yard said today that it would not be investigating these drugs accusations unless new evidence comes to light.
Although the trial was ostensibly about alleged fraud by the Grillo sisters, it descended into a slanging match between the 53-year-old “domestic Goddess” and 70-year-old Saatchi. The nation has been riveted by the portrait the case offered of a dysfunctional marriage.
The trial could have collapsed after Prime Minister David Cameron declared his support for “Team Nigella” in a Spectator interview halfway through the trial — his comments prompting a defence call for the trial to be brought to an end. In theory this contempt of court could have landed Cameron in jail.
Asked today at a post-EU summit press conference in Brussels whether “Team Nigella” was relieved that the court case was over, the Prime Minister was more circumspect and replied: “I have probably said enough about this issue and I will plead the Fifth (amendment) about this one.”
Neither defendant was in Court 8 when the jury foreman read out the verdicts. The pair had been excused from the dock because Elisabetta stopped breathing following a panic attack yesterday and spent two hours in hospital last night.
Francesca’s barrister, Karina Arden, was seen in the court foyer after the verdicts, proclaiming to her client: “C’e un Dio!” — Italian for “There is a God”. Francesca replied with a smile: “C’e un Dio!” and the pair embraced.
Anthony Metzer QC, representing Elisabetta, said his client was “relieved” and “crying her eyes out”.
Metzer and Arden turned to each other a few moments after the verdicts were delivered and smiled.
When the judge left the court, they hugged members of the defence team, one of whom was crying what appeared to be tears of joy and relief.
However, most ordinary members of the public will find it hard to understand how two women, on weekly wages of £300, could get away with spending nearly £700,000.
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 TV chef’s attitude towards her spending.
During the trial the jury heard details of an email sent by Saatchi in which he accused his former wife 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.”
These have turned out to be prophetic words although in giving evidence he admitted it was a “terrible, terrible mistake” for that email to become public.
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, jurors heard.
But an extra statement added in November did include the claims.
The additional statement, read to the court by Elisabetta’s barrister 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 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 Nigella told the court the idea that she is a “drug addict or habitual user of cocaine is absolutely ridiculous”. 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.
It remains to be seen if Nigella’s career, especially in America, is affected by today’s result.
Nigella said today: “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 (Crown Prosecution Service) 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."
She said she was “disappointed but unsurprised” by the not guilty verdict.
Her statement went on: “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.
“When I gave evidence I spoke of my regret at having to talk about the circumstances of the end of my marriage and also voiced concern about a campaign to circulate false allegations carried out over the course of this summer, then circulated as witness statements from the Grillos by a publicist, and eventually added to the defence of this prosecution in November. That concern remains.”
She added: “While this has been a difficult and upsetting time for both me and my family I would like to thank my friends, family and all those who have expressed support throughout this ordeal.”