Two personal assistants to Charles Saatchi and his ex-wife Nigella Lawson complained they were “being treated worse than Filipino slaves” when they were confronted over their alleged spending sprees at the couple’s expense, a court has heard.
Rahul Gajjar, finance director for wealthy art dealer Mr Saatchi, told jurors that Elisabetta Grillo, 41, made the claim after he wrote to her and her sister about their alleged use of the celebrity couple’s credit cards to buy £685,000-worth of luxury goods for themselves.
Mr Gajjar told jurors that at first Elisabetta, referred to in court as Lisa, and co-defendant Francesca, 35, were open and apologetic about their spending spree.
But he said that after he wrote them each a letter outlining how the sisters would pay off their debt which they were expected to sign, they became “agitated”.
“Lisa was against the proposal and I remember a reference to ’We’re being treated worse than Filipino slaves’,” Mr Gajjar, 44, told jurors at Isleworth Crown Court in west London.
Mr Gajjar said Saatchi and Lawson, who divorced earlier this year, agreed that the sisters should continue working for them when the alleged offences came to light early last year.
He told jurors that he suggested they continue on their current salaries with Francesca, who is alleged to have spent the largest amount on herself – £580,000 - expected to pay back £1,000 a month, and Elisabetta £250 per month.
They would also be able to live rent-free at a flat owned by TV chef Lawson in Battersea, central London, the court heard.
But Mr Gajjar said the defendants reacted angrily to this.
“They were absolutely in disagreement,” he said.
“They felt it tied them to the company for the rest of their lives.”
The court heard a series of text messages exchanged by Mr Gajjar and Francesca, including one where she complained her membership at private club Soho House had been cancelled.
“If they carry on doing stuff like this, I won’t have any choice but to go to court,” she wrote.
Mr Gajjar said that when he later spoke to Elisabetta on the phone about the letter, which she refused to sign, she became “hysterial” and “in a rage”.
“She said that she wanted no-one to get in touch with her or her sister,” he said.
During cross examination, Anthony Metzer QC, representing Elisabetta, suggested that this was because the sisters were under the impression they could use the credit cards on themselves and the matter was a misunderstanding.
The court previously heard that Saatchi alleges that Lawson was so high on drugs that she was unaware of what she had or had not permitted the defendants to spend money on.
Mr Metzer said: “Until now, until this letter, there had never been any mention had there, by you or by anybody, of dishonesty.
“This is the first time in which the suggestion of fraud or dishonesty has come from you in any way whatsoever?”
“On a formal basis, yes,” Mr Gajjar replied.
“This is ’you are a fraudster’,” Mr Metzer said.
This was in a different league wasn’t it?“
“Yes,” Mr Gajjar said.
The court heard that both defendants were given credit cards in Saatchi’s Conarco Partnership account with Coutts bank to buy items for the household.
Mr Gajjar told jurors he found out about the alleged fraud after noticing that Francesca’s average monthly spend on her card was £48,000, while Elisabetta’s was £28,000.
In comparison, the other personal assistants employed by Mr Saatchi had a maximum average spend of £8,000, while the average amount Lawson herself spent on her card per month was just £7,000.
Jurors heard that Francesca ran up a £64,000 bill in June last year as she went on luxury holidays and bought designer clothes.
This included more than £4,700 on flights to New York, where she spent £1,850 at high-end fashion store Miu Miu and more than £2,000 on hotels.
She also used the card to pay a £1,280 bill at the Ritz hotel in Paris on the same day she bought a Chloe dress for £723.
On June 12 she spent £5,385 at Miu Miu London, and £2,650 at designer store Prada.
The court heard that the 50 largest transactions made on Francesca’s credit card between June 2008 and June last year came to a total of £266,827 while Elisabetta’s came to £58,744.
Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Vivienne Westwood, Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein were just some of the other luxury brands that the money was spent on.
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.
The trial was adjourned until 10am tomorrow.
Saatchi is expected to give evidence after Mr Gajjar’s cross-examination is completed.