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British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson's staff cleared of fraud

Sisters Francesca (R) and Elisabetta Grillo arrive at Isleworth Crown Court in west London December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville
Sisters Francesca (R) and Elisabetta Grillo arrive at Isleworth Crown Court in west London December 19, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville

By Alexander Winning

LONDON (Reuters) - Two former assistants of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson were acquitted of defrauding her and her art dealer ex-husband on Friday after a trial that enthralled Britain with lurid tales of drug use, lavish spending and marital bullying.

Sisters Francesca and Elisabetta Grillo were cleared of defrauding Lawson and Charles Saatchi of 685,000 pounds ($1.12 million), having argued in court there had been an understanding they could spend at will on credit cards if they kept quiet about the chef's drug taking.

Lawson, 53, said she was "disappointed but unsurprised" by the acquittal and said she was "maliciously vilified" in the trial that had provided a stage for a sustained campaign to destroy her reputation.

"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," Lawson said in a statement issued by her publicist.

The trial produced sensational accounts of the high society marriage which fell apart earlier this year after Saatchi was photographed clasping his wife's throat at a restaurant in London's Mayfair.

"My clients are naturally relieved at the verdict of the jury," the Grillos' lawyer Richard Cannon said outside court. "This has been a long, hard fight, played out in the gaze of the world's media."

Such was the interest in the case in Britain that even Prime Minister David Cameron passed comment, saying he was a massive fan of Lawson whom he described as "very funny and warm". It was an intervention which led to a rebuke from the trial judge.

A well-known TV star and author in Britain and the United States, Lawson told London's Isleworth Crown Court she smoked cannabis occasionally towards the end of her 10-year marriage to Saatchi and had taken cocaine several times, but not regularly.

The Italian sisters alleged that Lawson used cocaine, cannabis and prescription pills daily for over a decade.

London's Metropolitan police said on Friday they would not investigate allegations of Lawson's drug use but would re-assess their decision if new evidence came to light.

"DOMESTIC GODDESS"

Lawson, nicknamed the "Domestic Goddess" after the title of one of her bestselling cookery books, grabbed newspaper headlines as she denied the claims in court and rebuked Saatchi for dragging their marital problems into the public eye in an effort to destroy her reputation.

"I don't have a drug problem, I have a life problem," said Lawson who is set to be a mentor and judge on U.S. TV cooking show "The Taste" on Walt Disney Co's ABC network in 2014.

Neither Elisabetta nor Francesca Grillo were in the packed courtroom to hear of their acquittal. Elisabetta suffered a panic attack in court on Thursday, and collapsed three more times on Friday, once inside the courthouse building.

Lawson and Saatchi, 70, divorced in July, and he accepted a police caution after newspapers published photographs of him with his hands around his wife's neck.

The fraud case exposed the bitter rows between Lawson and Saatchi, the co-founder of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, the excesses of their wealthy lifestyle, and their treatment of staff.

The court was told that at various times during the four years to which the charges relate the sisters spent lavishly on flights to New York, hotel stays, designer handbags and clothes.

The prosecution told the court that in the four months to June 2012, Francesca Grillo, 35, spent an average of 48,000 pounds a month and 41-year-old Elisabetta 28,000 pounds.

Lawson told the court Elisabetta had been a stalwart aide who had helped her through the death in 2001 of her first husband, journalist John Diamond, from cancer. She said the fraud allegations "broke our heart".

(Writing by Belinda Goldsmith; additional reporting by Costas Pitas; editing by Michael Holden and Rosalind Russell)

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