One of the former personal assistants to Charles Saatchi and Nigella Lawson accused of defrauding the celebrity couple said she was given a bank card to withdraw her own salary and buy “anything I wanted”.
Francesca Grillo, 35, said she was handed a bank card upon first being employed by art dealer Mr Saatchi more than a decade ago, with the simple instruction to withdraw her £300 a week wages and to buy anything she, Mr Saatchi, Ms Lawson or her children needed.
Grillo – who, along with older sister Elisabetta, denies fraud – told Isleworth Crown Court in west London that the card was used to furnish her new accommodation in the annex of Mr Saatchi’s house, as well as pay for essentials such as groceries.
Giving evidence in her defence, Francesca said she played a key role in the lives of Mr Saatchi, Ms Lawson and the children – including housekeeping, shopping, taking the children to school, cooking meals and even cleaning up after builders to prevent Mr Saatchi from getting angry over the mess they left.
Asked by defence counsel Karina Arden about the way her wages were paid, Francesca said: “He (Mr Saatchi) gave me a card with my name on it. It was a NatWest card (with wages of £300 a week) to be withdrawn weekly.
“I would live in the annex of the house. I was told to buy whatever I wanted with that card.
“I have never had a contract of employment. That arrangement lasted for four years until I was put on the pay roll.
“I was never given strict rules. Charles just said ’There is your card’.”
She went on: “I was to buy food for the house, laundry, anything the children wanted, anything Nigella or Charles wanted.
“When asked, I could get myself anything. Anything to do with furnishing my flat, travel...”
The defendants, of Italian descent, are accused of spending £685,000 on credit cards belonging to the celebrity couple to buy designer goods and luxury holidays.
Francesca told the jury she still loved Mr Saatchi, Ms Lawson and the children - but said she was disappointed with the case being brought to court.
Asked by Ms Arden to describe her relationship with her former employers, Francesca said: ``How do you describe a relationship with a family?
“It’s a natural feeling – you love someone, they love you back.
“You go beyond loyalty.”
She said she did everything she possibly could to please Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson, who divorced earlier this year.
Referring to the trial, Francesca told the jury: “When something like this is happening, you don’t stop loving them.
“You’re disappointed, but you don’t stopped loving them. I never stopped loving Charles or Nigella or the children.”
She said she was “extremely fond” of them all, adding: “They loved me back. I had a great relationship with all of them, Charles included.
“Many of you heard he had a very scatty type of temperament but I always had an incredible relationship with him until the day this happened.”
Asked how they were as employers, Francesca said: “I never see them like that, I saw them as a family.”
She and Ms Lawson had a very close bond, akin to a mother-daughter relationship, the court heard.
“She embraces you, she wants you to lean on her and her to lean on you,” she said. “It’s a very open relationship. It goes from personal things to working things. You could talk to her about anything.”
They would discuss the children, Ms Lawson’s relatives and her relationship with Mr Saatchi, the court heard.
The pair’s closeness led to Francesca once remarking: “I don’t know how, you understand me better than my own family.”
Francesca said she appreciated everything the TV cook had done for her.
She was asked by Ms Arden about booking taxis on the family’s account with a cab firm, and said she was allowed to order one whenever she needed to, whether for work or personal reasons.
Francesca denied that booking cabs was ever a secret and both Mr Saatchi and Ms Lawson always knew when she had done so.