'The Devil's Advocate' Giovanni di Stefano was 'not a lawyer at all', court hears


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The Independent Online

An Italian fraudster who posed as a top lawyer pocketed more than £575,000 a client had paid him for legal services the conman never provided, 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 in fact he was "not a qualified lawyer at all".

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 - "another fraudster" Subhash Thakrar - approached di Stefano to help him scrap a bankruptcy order against him.

Di Stefano told accountant Thakrar, who had been told throughout his bankruptcy proceedings that his evidence was "literally unbelievable" by the judge, that he could annul the ruling.

The Italian told Thakrar to transfer around £48,000 in advance of any legal work, and Thakrar's wife Kiran set about raising the funds by selling some land she owned in Kent.

The money was transferred, but Mr Aaronberg told the jury of eight women and four men that within days di Stefano had frittered away the cash.

"It is evident that di Stefano quickly spent the money," he said.

The phoney lawyer then convinced the Thakrars to pay a further £53,000 for his services, Mr Aaronberg said.

"The Thakrars were becoming a good source of income for Mr di Stefano," he said.

"But I can tell you that within five days, it was gone."

Di Stefano had spent the money and used it to clear some debts, the court was told.

But the £100,000 he had already taken was not enough for di Stefano, Mr Aaronberg said.

"In December 2007, Mr di Stefano advised the Thakrars that it would be essential that Subhash's bankruptcy be annulled.

"He indicated that further funds would be required for this purpose.

"He told the Thakrars that, if they could raise £476,750, he would himself contribute £1 million, or more in necessary, and take repayment once the bankruptcy was annulled."

Mr Aaronberg said di Stefano continued to give the impression to the Thakrars that he was rich and "well connected" by asking them to attend meetings in Rome and Portugal.

Di Stefano sent them messages telling them he could have a certain judge thrown off their case, and that he had been working in Iraq with the US Secretary of State.

He told them that he was holding the money "in trust", that he would only use it for the purpose of scraping the bankruptcy, and he "was dealing with their case and matters were well in hand".

But as the months and years went by, the Thakrars' confidence in Mr di Stefano was waning, Mr Aaronberg said.

They demanded their money back, but nothing was returned. Di Stefano had taken it all.

"Nothing has ever been returned to Mr and Mrs Thakrar," the prosecutor said.

"Nor to those who provided loans to them.

"All of the monies mentioned above that came on behalf of the Thakrars, totalling £575,927, have been lost."

Mr Aaronberg told the jury that although Thakrar was not "a man of virtue", he is still a victim, as are the other members of his family.

Di Stefano, of North Stream, Marshside, Canterbury, Kent, 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 also heard that the defendant splashed £80,000 of another client's so-called fees.

Mr Aaronberg said 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 that the defendant 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 by 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 is also accused of stealing £10,000 from convicted sex attacker Michael Smith and his sister Christine Smith, and taking £5,000 from Stafford Freeborn, who was convicted over a gun attack in December 1997, the prosecution said.

The case was adjourned until 10.30 tomorrow.