An Italian man who claimed to be a top lawyer – and became known as The Devil’s Advocate for taking on “unwinnable” cases – conned clients out of £1 million, a court heard today.
Giovanni di Stefano, 57, who moved to Britain when he was five and went to school in Wollaston, is accused of setting himself up as a bonafide lawyer when he had no legal qualifications and was not registered to work as a lawyer in Italy or the UK.
The alleged fraudster used the Italian word “avvocato” on business cards, letterheads and identification documents to give clients - and the judiciary - the impression he was an advocate.
But, in fact, he was telling “deliberate lies” and was “not a qualified lawyer at all”, the prosecution said.
Di Stefano 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 as he opened the case: “In a sentence, he is charged with various offences of deception, fraud, money laundering and forgery, and the prosecution say he committed those offences between 2004 and 2012.”
The lawyer told the panel of eight women and four men that di Stefano developed “something of a reputation” among convicted criminals, lawyers, the media and the wider community.
“It was this that has gained him the fame, or the notoriety, that he enjoys,” he said.
“He was a man who was willing to provide legal services to clients whose cases others considered unwinnable or too difficult to defend.
“He was willing to argue for unpopular causes. Somewhere along the way over the years, he acquired the soubriquet, or nickname, ‘The Devil’s Advocate’.”
Mr Aaronberg said di Stefano operated under the company name Studio Legalese Internazionale – which translates as The International Law Firm – and provided “legal advice” and “legal services” to people with all kinds of cases.
He showed the jury pictures of business cards and headed note paper in which di Stefano calls himself an “avvocato” and said he was attempting to convey “a clear impression to anyone who is reading these documents that he is writing as an ‘avvocato’, or advocate”.
He said: “The prosecution’s case is, that by doing this, he was giving a clear indication - which was false - that he was a qualified lawyer.
“Not only did he use the term ‘avvocato’ freely when he was not entitled to do so, he also told a number of individuals on many different occasions that he was a lawyer, when he was not.”
Mr Aaronberg told the jury there ten victims, or sets of victims.
He said: “Between them, between June 2004 and December 2011, they lost a little under £1 million in sterling - £929,828.
“One person lost 10,000 euro and another lost about six-and-half thousand US dollars.
“Some of those who lost money are people who themselves had been convicted of criminal offences.
“But, more often, it was their family members who were prevailed upon to hand over money to Mr di Stefano.”
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.
Di Stefano, of North Stream, Marshside, Canterbury in Kent, was born in the small town of Petrella Tifernina in central Italy, but moved to the UK as a boy and went to school in Wollaston.
Mr Aaronberg said di Stefano deceived his victims because “he would have known full well that he was not qualified to practise at the Italian Bar, any more than he was a surgeon who was qualified to perform surgery, or a pilot who was qualified to fly a plane”.
The prosecutor explained to the jury that in 2002 the defendant managed to persuade a High Court Judge, Mr Justice Peter Smith, to rule that he was indeed an “avvocato” after the defendant was denied permission to visit a prospective client by the governor at Belmarsh prison.
Mr Aaronberg said: “He personally informed Mr Justice Peter Smith that he was ‘an Italian advocate of the Italian Bar’ and ‘a responsible lawyer’.
“In the course of the submissions Mr di Stefano also indicated that he was subject to ‘a code of conduct that has been inherent between client and attorney’ as a consequence of which he was unable to divulge certain information requested by the judge.
“We suggest on that occasion he was telling deliberate lies.”
The barrister told the jury di Stefano would “point to this judgment” for many years when anybody questioned his credentials.
Di Stefano, who is on bail, is permitted to sit out of the dock and behind his defence barrister, Leonard Smith QC, so that he can communicate with him more easily.
Mr Aaronberg went on to tell the jury about some of di Stefano’s alleged victims.
He said that between June and November 2004 di Stefano dishonestly obtained money totalling £120,000 by falsely claiming to Paula Gregory-Dade – the now ex-wife of a convicted murderer called Paul Bush – that he was an Italian lawyer.
The barrister said that Bush wanted to enlist the services of di Stefano after the inmate saw a documentary in prison about the “Devil’s Advocate”.
Mr Aaronberg said Ms Gregory-Dade was convinced by di Stefano that he had two points of law that could be argued in an appeal against Bush’s conviction.
The defendant told her his legal services would cost £20,000 and she needed to pay £10,000 up front, Mr Aaronberg said.
“Paula Gregory-Dade believed that she was dealing with a qualified lawyer,” he told the panel.
“She was anxious to do whatever she could for her partner, and in order to raise the money requested, re-mortgaged her home.”
Di Stefano is also accused of telling Ms Gregory-Dade that he would hold £100,000 as a security to be offered to the Court of Appeal in respect of a bail application to be made on behalf of Bush.
Ms Gregory-Dade raised the cash by borrowing £30,000 in bank loans, £60,000 from another ex-partner Roger Dade and £10,000 from Bush’s stepmother Shirley Attree.
Mr Aaronberg said di Stefano put the money into an account that already had an overdraft of £64,000, and just days later the account was £55,000 overdrawn again.
The barrister told the jury that di Stefano may well have believed Bush might have been a candidate for bail, but lawyer Peter Kelson QC advised him there would be no possibility of that.
Bush’s appeal was eventually dismissed, but by that stage di Stefano no longer had the money which he had promised to keep in a business account.
The next alleged victim Mr Aaronberg told the jury about was French national Laurent Penchef, who was jailed for 18 years in 2002 after he was convicted of importing a vast amount of cocaine into the UK.
After an appeal was initially rejected, Penchef sought the help of di Stefano, who he believed may be able to help lodge another appeal or help him get repatriated to France to serve his sentience.
Penchef was told he would need to pay 10,000 euro (£8,556), and his parents agreed to send the money to di Stefano.
However, the defendant “did little or nothing to assist Mr Penchef” and the convicted smuggler demanded di Stefano pay back the money to his parents, but it was not returned.
Despite the cash never being returned, the charge is listed as an “attempt” to obtain a transfer to avoid “technical issues in relation to jurisdiction” because the money was sent from France to Italy.
The trial continues at 10am tomorrow.