Saturday 20 January 2018

'I was not gripping, strangling, or throttling Nigella', Saatchi tells court

Charles Saatchi arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London today
Charles Saatchi arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London today
Sisters Elisabetta 'Lisa' and Francesca Grillo
Nigella Lawson's former husband Charles Saatchi sent her an email referring to drugs allegations made against her
Elisabetta Grillo (2nd R) arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London November 29, 2013. British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson's two former assistants, Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, are accused of defrauding Lawson's former husband Charles Saatchi out of more than 300,000 pounds ($484,600) during the period when they worked for Lawson and Saatchi was still living with her. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW ENTERTAINMENT)
Charles Saatchi arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London November 29, 2013. British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson's two former assistants, Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, are accused of defrauding Lawson's former husband Charles Saatchi out of more than 300,000 pounds ($484,600) during the period when they worked for Lawson and Saatchi was still living with her. REUTERS/Toby Melville (BRITAIN - Tags: CRIME LAW ENTERTAINMENT)

Millionaire art dealer has told a court in London that he did not ‘grip’ or ‘strangle’ his estranged wife Nigella Lawson, when photographed during their infamous bust-up at a Mayfair restaurant.

Referring again to the incident outside Scott's, Mr Saatchi said: "I was not gripping, strangling or throttling her. I was holding her head by the neck to make her focus, can we be clear?

"Was it about her drug use? No."

Charles Saatchi said he was "utterly bereft" that a private email he sent to ex-wife Nigella Lawson referring to her being off her head on drugs has been made public.

The email he wrote to the TV chef was read in full to jurors but, when asked if he believed allegations that Miss Lawson was a habitual cocaine user, the art dealer said: "I do not know."

"If you ask me whether I actually knew whether Nigella ever took drugs, the answer is no," Mr Saatchi added as he gave evidence at Isleworth Crown Court in west London, where his two former personal assistants are on trial accused of fraud.

Earlier, he said it was his ex-wife Nigella Lawson's idea to let their personal assistants have company credit cards.

The millionaire art dealer, who went through a high-profile divorce from the TV cook earlier this year, said he was "very fond" of Italian sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo, who are accused of using credit cards loaned to them by the celebrity couple to spend more than £685,000 on themselves.

It is alleged that the two women lived the "high life", spending the money on designer clothes and handbags from Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood.

Asked by prosecutor Jane Carpenter who decided that the defendants should have credit cards, Mr Saatchi said: "My ex-wife, Nigella."

Mr Saatchi told jurors at Isleworth Crown Court in west London that the credit card bills were paid by his company - Conarco Partnership - before he reimbursed it from his own personal account.

"I'm pretty certain the company pays off everything and bills me and I pay back the company for anything that's personal," he said.

He told the court the sisters were originally employed as a nanny by Miss Lawson during her marriage to her late husband, John Diamond.

When Mr Saatchi married the food writer, the Grillos also looked after his own young daughter, Phoebe, who is now 19, but their role changed as the children grew older.

"The children adored them and Nigella was very fond of them and I was very fond of them and we didn't want them to go so they stayed on as housekeepers and general assistants," Mr Saatchi said.

Italian sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo are accused of using credit cards loaned to them by Mr Saatchi and his ex-wife Nigella Lawson to spend more than £685,000 on themselves.

Prosecutors claim the pair lived the "high life" and went on a spending spree, buying designer clothes and handbags from Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior and Vivienne Westwood.

Jurors at Isleworth Crown Court in west London previously heard that Francesca, 35, spent the most money on her card, which was registered to Conarco Partnership - one of Mr Saatchi's companies.

She is alleged to have used it to buy items for herself worth in excess of £580,000 and in June last year alone ran up a £64,000 bill on luxury holidays and designer goods, it is claimed.

Mr Saatchi's finance director, Rahul Gajjar, 44, said earlier that he only began to suspect the sisters early last year.

Now, during cross-examination by Karina Arden, representing Francesca, Mr Gajjar has said it was he who authorised the defendant's credit limit, which started off at £25,000.

Mr Gajjar said he increased it to £50,000 in February 2010 and then £100,000 in June 2011 as the defendant kept going over the limit and her card was frozen.

Ms Arden asked: "So the level of spending, which may be suggested by the Crown to be extraordinary - certainly you and Charles knew about it?"

"Yes," Mr Gajjar replied.

Ms Arden went on: "He knew that a credit limit of £50,000 was insufficient at one point and therefore asked for it to be increased?"

"The details of the figure I don't think Charles was aware of," Mr Gajjar said.

Asked why Francesca and Elisabetta, 41, were expected to buy so much for the household, Mr Gajjar said: "Charles and Nigella didn't generally go shopping like most people do. They would have their personal assistants shop for them."

Ms Arden said Francesca worked long hours for the celebrity couple, often from 5am or 6am until late at night, and travelled around the world with them and their children.

Asked if Francesca "lived and breathed" Mr Saatchi and Miss Lawson, Mr Gajjar agreed.

The Grillos, both of Kensington Gardens Square, Bayswater, 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.

Mr Saatchi, who went through a high-profile divorce from cookery writer Miss Lawson earlier this year, is expected to give evidence later.

Mr Saatchi told the court that he had a face-to-face conversation with Francesca about how they would pay back the money they spent.

He said he suggested that they be paid half wages and move into a house owned by Ms Lawson in Battersea which she used as a studio.

Mr Saatchi said he thought Francesca saw the idea as "humiliating".

He told the court she said: "I'd rather go to jail than go to Battersea."

He then said she told him: "See you around".

Referring again to the incident outside Scott's, Mr Saatchi said: "I was not gripping, strangling or throttling her. I was holding her head by the neck to make her focus, can we be clear?

"Was it about her drug use? No."

Asked by Mr Metzer, defending Elisabetta Grillo, to explain what he meant in the email he sent to her, Mr Saatchi said: "I was very upset. I wasn't laughing, I was broken-hearted."

He said it was a "terrible, terrible mistake" on behalf of their lawyers that it had been seen more widely.

"Why this went any further than to Nigella - she must have thought there was an agenda she thought this would serve," he added.

Questioned about the drug-taking allegations, Mr Saatchi told the court: "It was hearsay. I personally have absolutely no knowledge that Nigella has ever taken a drug ever.

"I don't like drugs at all and I didn't like reading what the Grillos said was the culture in my house."

Asked if he believed the claims, Mr Saatchi went on: "I may have believed it but I may have been completely wrong and they may have been deluded.

"Like I said, you like proof in this courtroom and I cannot provide proof."

Mr Saatchi described the "Higella" reference as a "silly pun".

He was also asked about why he wrote in the email that his ex-wife now had a "free pass".

Mr Saatchi told jurors: "In one of the very rare conversations I've had with Nigella since we split, I asked her whether she was happy.

"And she said she was happy. And I said 'What was this all about?'

"She said 'I'm happy because I don't feel I have to ask for a pass to do what I feel like doing'.

"And I said to her 'You never had to ask for a pass, you could do whatever you liked. If you wanted to have a girls' night or go to a party then you were free to do so. What do you mean?'

"I was just being nasty," he added.

"This is not a very pleasant email but I was very, very upset.

"What I gathered was now that she was divorced from me she was free to do whatever she wants."

Getting more and more frustrated at Mr Metzer's line of questioning, Mr Saatchi asked him if he expected Ms Lawson to come to court and say she told the defendants they could spend what they liked, and added: "Not a chance."

He also said to Mr Metzer: "You're trying to get me to say something which I'm never going to say."

The court heard that Mr Saatchi's legal representatives sent a letter to Ms Lawson after it seemed that she no longer wished to appear as a witness.

"The purpose of that letter was to say to Nigella 'You cannot just walk away from this trial and see it as my problem because I paid their wages'," he said.

He said the letter "worked" and he withdrew it "the moment it worked".

Under intense questioning from Mr Metzer, Mr Saatchi said he refuted the suggestion that his former wife's mind was so "addled" by drugs that she was not aware what she had or had not permitted the sisters to buy.

"Are you asking me whether I think that Nigella truly was off her head?" he asked.

"Not for a second. Over this whole period she was writing books very successfully and appearing on television shows very successfully."

Mr Saatchi said of Francesca's role: "I don't think it was exactly the most gruelling job in the world."

He described the sisters' jobs as "a fairly flexible way of living".

Mr Saatchi said Francesca had "a completely free range" and said she slept next door to him.

"As far as I was concerned she was very happy with the way we lived," he added.

Recalling when the matter first came to his attention, Mr Saatchi said: "I rather foolishly thought I would overlook it as them getting carried away and being naughty."

He added: "It gives me great pain to see them in this situation."

The multi-millionaire also said he does not spend his days "fussing about even very large sums of money".

Mr Saatchi denied that he told Francesca he would "hunt her and destroy her", or that he banged on a table during a discussion about the expenditure.

Banging his hand down on the surface in front of him, he said: "There was no banging on the table and no threats of any kind.

"I was trying to save her from herself."

He said he was "horrified" that Francesca had given "this rather distasteful story".

Mr Saatchi walked towards a frenzy of waiting cameramen and photographers' flashes as he left the court and made his way to a vehicle.

The case was adjourned until Wednesday when Ms Lawson is expected to appear as a witness.

Online Editors

Promoted Links

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in World News