11/28/2013 AT 3:30 PM ET
Two Italian sisters accused of stealing more than 685,000 ($1,119,000) from Nigella Lawson and media mogul Charles Saatchi claimed in a London court Thursday that they were “being treated worse than Filipino slaves” when asked to own up to their misdeeds.
Elisabetta “Lisa” Grillo, 41, “freaked” when she was asked to sign a “draconian” letter admitting she dishonestly used a Saatchi credit card for personal purchases, her lawyer said.
Grillo and her sister Francesca, 35 – both of whom were former personal assistants to Lawson and Saatchi – were open about their four-year spending spree, the court heard. But both sisters have pleaded not guilty to fraud charges.
The duo’s buying binge came to light after Saatchi learned of a rogue taxi cab journey in summer 2012. He asked his financial adviser Rahul Gajjar to examine financial records, which revealed numerous cash withdrawals and unauthorized purchases at The Ritz Hotel, Chanel, Louis Vuitton and other luxury designer outlets.
The court heard that “huge amounts of money – many thousands of pounds” had been billed on credit cards at the private-members’ club Soho House.
Defense lawyer Anthony Metzer contended that the Grillos’ behavior was no different from other personal assistants working for Lawson and Saatchi. The two had billed dental treatments, driving lessons and other seemingly personal items to Saatchi’s cards without scrutiny or penalty, he said.
Elisabetta Grillo had worked as a nanny for Lawson for 14 years and was later joined by her sister as “a housemaid” in the household with Saatchi and his and Lawson’s children. The younger Grillo lived at the family home and sometimes started work at 6 a.m., the court heard.
The sisters’ credit card expenditure wasn’t investigated immediately because “it was a trivial matter,” Gajjar, the Chief Operating Officer and Financial Director of Saatchi’s business, Conarco Partnership, told the court in West London.
The court proceedings come amid explosive accusations leveled by the Grillo sisters that Lawson had been abusing cocaine, cannabis and prescription pills for more than a decade.
On Twitter, fans posted “#teamnigella” in support of Lawson, who also went through a nasty split with Saatchi earlier this year. With Saatchi set to take the stand Friday, Lawson’s sister-in-law Rosa Monckton voiced her dismay at recent reports by posting, “A man scorned is much more dangerous than a woman #nigella.”