An Italian man who once tried to buy Northampton Town, posed as a top lawyer frittered away more than £80,000 of a client’s money that she believed he was keeping safe, a court has heard.
Giovanni di Stefano, who is known as The Devil’s Advocate for taking on “unwinnable” cases, is accused of tricking people into thinking he was a bonafide legal professional, when if fact he was “not a qualified lawyer at all”.
Eleven years ago, he was embroiled in a high profile bid to buy the Cobblers, but the deal collapsed when it later emerged he had only offered a fraction of the £600,000 asking price for a 60 per cent stake.
The 57-year-old, originally from central Italy, is on trial at Southwark Crown Court in London charged with 25 counts including deception, fraud and money laundering.
Prosecutor David Aaronberg QC told the jury that one of his victims - a benefit fraudster called Elizabeth de Villiers - was conned by di Stefano into thinking he could help her get off a string of charges.
She was accused by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) of using false identities to embezzle £155,000.
Mr Aaronberg told the jury of eight women and four men that di Stefano agreed to help de Villiers, who believed she had no defence case and was bang to rights.
Di Stefano told her that although he was too busy to take the case on personally, he would “oversee” it, and asked a London solicitor called Simon Jowett to represent her.
De Villiers, who died in 2010, told Mr Jowett that she had around £80,000 accumulated from her false claims that she wanted to pay back to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) as soon as possible, believing it might help her case.
The prosecution said di Stefano told his client he had spoken to the DWP, and would personally arrange for the money to be returned.
Mr Aaronberg said: “He (di Stefano) said he would sit on the monies until it was appropriate to hand them over.
“He said: ‘You send me the £80,000 and I will send it on to the DWP’.
“She trusted him and she arranged for the monies, over which she had some control, to be sent to him.
“Did Mr di Stefano forward the money, or any part of it, to the DWP?
“I’m afraid not.”
Mr Aaronberg explained to the jury how de Villiers paid around £83,000 in three instalments to a business account of di Stefano in the name of Studio Legalese Internazionale, which translates as The International Law Firm.
As well as two payments totalling around £37,000 from de Villiers, a friend called Peter Puskas also paid over £46,000 to the account.
The barrister said after the money had been put into the account, the balance jumped from being overdrawn by over £12,000 to being in credit to almost £71,000.
But after being deposited in May 2007, it was “whittled down” by di Stefano in “relatively small sums” until it was £7,000 in the red just two months later, with “not a penny ever paid to the DWP”.
The barrister said that di Stefano then told Ms De Villiers that he could not, in fact, transfer the funds on to the DWP because they were the proceeds of crime.
Eventually de Villiers became “very disillusioned” with di Stefano and Mr Jowett, so she instructed new solicitors to act for her.
A solicitor from that company spoke to di Stefano who told her that he was still holding the money.
De Villiers was finally sentenced in January 2008 and was jailed for 18 months.
The money was never sent to the DWP or returned to de Villiers or Mr Puskas, the prosecution said.
Di Stefano denies nine counts of obtaining a money transfer by deception, eight counts of fraud, three counts of acquiring criminal property, two counts of using a false instrument, one count of attempting to obtain a money transfer by deception, one count of obtaining property by deception and one count of using criminal property.
The court heard di Stefano, of North Stream, Marshside, Canterbury, Kent, is also accused of stealing £10,000 from convicted sex attacker Michael Smith and his sister Christine Smith.
Di Stefano allegedly pocketed £5,000 the Smiths transferred to him to pay barrister Trevor Burke at Smith’s sentencing hearing in December 2005.
The other £5,000 was paid in instalments by Ms Smith to fund an appeal against Smith’s conviction, which never went ahead.
Mr Aaronberg said: “Had she been aware that he was not a qualified lawyer, she would never have engaged his services nor would she have agreed to her family paying any money to him.”
Di Stefano also stole £5,000 from Stafford Freeborn, who was convicted over a gun attack in December 1997, the prosecution said.
The trial continues.