Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Will the real Giovanni Di Stefano please stand up?

A prohibited immigrant chased out of Auckland claims to be counsel for Saddam Hussein. CHRIS BARTON tracks him down.

Remember the Italian businessman who spoke with a Michael Caine accent and was chased out of Auckland by an aggressive TV camera crew?

A few years later he pops up in Serbia - a grinning apologist at the elbow of the warlord Arkan, aka the Butcher of Belgrade.

Next he's in Scotland with £26 million ($74 million) trying to buy the ailing Dundee football club. Then he's a multimillionaire maverick lawyer defending some of Britain's most notorious criminals. And now he's about to defend Saddam Hussein. A film script in the making? Quite possibly.

Giovanni di Stefano can't help creating new fictions about himself - a driven creature who thrives by hoodwinking others, often with remarkable success.

"I am a leading lawyer defending Saddam Hussein, and I defend all over the world. It is an insult to readers to suggest any old rubbish or otherwise," he tells the Herald.

"One of nature's fraudsters" is how a British judge described him when sentencing him to five years in prison in 1986, saying he was a "swindler without scruple or conscience".

Fraud. An inconvenient blot that keeps popping up in Di Stefano's infamous life and threatening to spoil his party. But it's also his driving force, his raison d'etre - to show up justice itself as the fraud.

Di Stefano explains away his convictions as mistakes that have since been corrected - on appeal. Unfortunately they weren't. But such is his nature that even when he's caught out he'll brazenly deny the facts.

As one British journalist put it: "He almost seems to believe the greater the lie you can get away with, the more power to you - and in a funny way, he has a point."

Despite the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and BBC Hardtalk interviewer David Jessel confronting him with a 1987 court document showing his appeal was dismissed, Di Stefano maintains his fraud convictions have been overturned.

"Is it a forgery, what I have seen?" asks an incredulous Jessel during a March interview.

But Di Stefano doesn't really care what people think. "The only thing that really affects me in life is if there is a change in the laws of gravity."

The Herald gets the same line by email this week. First the denial. "My conviction was overturned in 1987 and the documents obtained by Martin Hannan [Scotland on Sunday] are false." Then the doesn't-matter-anyway.

"But as we live in a free world I allow people to write whatever they like since it does not actually alter anything in my life.

"And if it helps sell newspapers and stimulate the economy, you may even write that I am a reincarnation of Attila the Hun or Lord Byron. I find it all very amusing."

So do we - especially sorting out the fact from the fiction. Hardtalk's Jessel valiantly takes up the cause and establishes that Di Stefano should not use the title Dr, did not get a PhD from Cambridge, and did not go to Wellington College with Alistair Campbell, (neither did Alistair Campbell, for that matter).

No, says Di Stefano, it wasn't him who said that. Or provided this false information to the latest edition of the Marquis Who's Who. And he doesn't know anything about the other fraud convictions in 1976 by a John Di Stefano born in the same year (1955) and the same place (Compabasso) in Italy as he was. No, he wasn't deported from the United States in 1992 "because he was convicted of a crime of moral turpitude". He consented to being deported.

"Isn't that the same thing?" asks Jessel. "I mean, I can 'consent' to going to prison, but I'm still going."

"You can put it that way if you want," allows Di Stefano, arguing he could have fought the deportation because he was married to a US citizen - Tanja, originally born in Kawerau, New Zealand - at the time. Black is white, or at least a deep shade of grey. Deny, deny, deny.

Di Stefano's first recorded taste of the media drug was in May 1990 when he turned up in Auckland with Tanja and began a $69 million property buying spree.

Eight properties including the Royal Oak Shopping Mall, Takapuna Beach Motel and Park Lane Motor Inn in Epsom were soon to be owned by Interpart Mergers and Acquisitions - although no money changed hands.

Herald property journalist Anne Gibson remembers the media circus at the Regent Hotel. And how easily the desperate Auckland property owners were sucked in. "In terms of an outstanding joke against the Auckland property community, it was a spectacular ruse. It was a time anyone waving a wallet around would be believed."

Then it all went horribly wrong. An alert Holmes show journalist noticed Di Stefano's trouser cuffs dragged on the ground. A little background checking among print journalists showed Beverly Hills-based Interpart was being sued for $44 million by Pathe Communications, owned by Italian businessman Giancarlo Parretti - himself arrested for bank fraud and extortion.

Di Stefano denied everything. The Di Stefano being sued was not him.

"He is one of my cousins," he barefacedly insisted to NBR. And it was just coincidence that the company being sued had the same name as his. "I'm astounded, but our Interpart has no relationship whatsoever with the other one."

But there was a relationship - a murky one. In 1990 Parretti bought the MGM film studio for US$1.3 billion - using mysterious loan money from Credit Lyonnais bank.

Di Stefano claims he was instrumental in the deal - having struck up a friendship with Parretti after getting him into Hollywood's Polo Lounge by bribing Alberto the head waiter.

"We did force it upon them [Credit Lyonnais] in a very amoral fashion and that was part of my ingenuity," Di Stefano brags to Hardtalk's Jessel. Amoral is a word Di Stefano uses often. He sees himself as somehow outside any moral code - answerable only to higher forces such as gravity. In his mind Zeliko "Arkan" Raznjatovic was a top bloke and it's rubbish cooked up by the media that he was practising genocide in the former Yugoslavia.

"We always have to have a Satan. You cannot possibly have a good if you don't have a bad because you've got nothing to measure it with," he said in the documentary Notorious: The Devil's Advocate, screened by the BBC in January. And, oh yes, given the chance, he would defend Hitler and Satan.

When the MGM deal went sour and Parretti and other partners ended up in prison, somehow Di Stefano walked away with US$249 million - or so he boasts. Not surprisingly, it's soon after this, in 1992, that he flees. "I thought right, I'll go to Yugoslavia because these people might kill me."

The pesky fraud convictions - involving the bogus Facari Bank, tricking customers out of millions of dollars and acquiring quantities of video tapes by deception - caught up with Di Stefano in spectacular fashion in Auckland in June 1990.

As usual he denied everything. "It is absolutely ridiculous. The person they are referring to is not me," he told the Herald from Los Angeles at the time.

But when he returned to New Zealand a week later - purportedly to complete his property deals - authorities stopped him at Auckland airport, declared him a prohibited immigrant and sent him packing. A Holmes camera crew pursued him at Honolulu airport where things turned ugly.

"I promise you I'll break every bone in your body - do you want to see?" he threatened, running at a hapless Mike Valentine like an enraged bull.

The incident - and others - has not endeared New Zealand to Di Stefano.

"New Zealand has lost all credibility in its reporting on me and I find much, if not all, of what is said about me in the New Zealand press quite amusing," he says by email. "It follows that until such time New Zealand rehabilitates itself there will be no interviews granted by me or any co-operation."

Except he can't help himself. Soon there's a second email, then a third.

But to find out what he's been up to since 1990 one needs only to type his name into Google. Di Stefano's lust for the limelight has not waned. Everywhere you turn there's another story. Many are promoted on his legal firm's website (www.studiolegaleinternazionale.com) and his own articles are on www.lospettro.it.

In 1992 he arrived in Belgrade and made friends with Radojica Nikcevic, the majority stockholder of Radio Penguin and the housing society Sumadija, who was murdered by an unknown killer in 1993. Shortly after that, Di Stefano inherited all Nikcevic's businesses. In 1995 journalist Dejan Anastasijevic, writing for Vreme, tells of an incident when Di Stefano's bodyguard accidentally shot and wounded a Radio Penguin staff member. The staff go on strike and Di Stefano accuses them of laziness and embezzlement.

Around the same time he gets a new Yugoslav wife, Mirjana. Then there's the time he's extradited from Italy to face more charges of alleged fraudulent trading. He spends more time in prison but the case against him falls apart.

Despite the controversy that follows him everywhere Di Stefano is now a successful lawyer. Or is he? The question has been vexing the English establishment for some time. Di Stefano has featured prominently on the defence teams of notorious cases including that of timeshare fraudster John "Goldfinger" Palmer, property tycoon Nicholas van Hoogstraten and road rage killer Kenneth Noye.

He's had considerable success - getting Hoogstraten off a manslaughter conviction and overturning a £33 million confiscation order against Palmer.

But sometimes he says things just for effect. Like he was working on an appeal for Harold Shipman, just before the serial killer committed suicide. Shipman's lawyers said it wasn't true.

Most recently he claimed to be working on Saddam Hussein's defence - apparently hired by one of Hussein's wives, Sajida. Is it true? Who knows? Checking such facts is extremely difficult - a ploy Di Stefano uses to good advantage. He was in Iraq in the late 90s and in the The Devil's Advocate documentary he proudly shows off two chairs - a gift from "His Excellency President" Saddam Hussein. He uses the same title, and reverential tone, when referring to Slobodan Milosevic, also apparently benefiting from his defence advice.

"He's rather a slight figure and behaves a bit like small men who like having big dogs," says another British journalist. "He gave me a photo of himself with Arkan. You can see it gives him incredible pride to be seen next to a great warlord."

But in January during an appeal hearing for Palmer in a London court, Lord Justice Rose queried Di Stefano's professional status. That was two weeks after the Scotsman and the Guardian revealed that the police and the Law Society were investigating Di Stefano's claims to be a lawyer.

Six months later, nothing has been done.

"Giovanni di Stefano is not a solicitor, or a registered foreign lawyer, or a registered European lawyer," says Law Society press and public relations officer Geoffrey Negus.

The Bar Council also confirms he is not a barrister. And though the International Bar Association acknowledges he is a member, it points out the process of becoming a member is by self-certification.

Meanwhile, Di Stefano continues to thumb his nose at the establishment. "So long as I do not practise 'full-time' in the UK I have no requirement to answer to the Law Society or the Bar Council. I am NOT [his emphasis] a solicitor and NOT a barrister and do not profess to be. And having seen some of the standards of work from the profession, thank heaven I am not."

What he is - or claims to be - is an Italian avoccato and, thanks to European Union law, that entitles him to represent clients in Britain. What he's refusing to say is where he got his Italian qualifications.

And much to the embarrassment of the British legal system, no one seems able - or wants - to find out.

Which at the moment gives the last laugh to Di Stefano. As he said in The Devil's Advocate, if he isn't a lawyer, "how is it that an amateur has defeated the Crown on two of the greatest cases that they've ever had?"

In truth Di Stefano hasn't won his cases alone. All have been fronted by QCs such as Paul Martin, Jerome Lynch and Trevor Burke. But his glee does reveal something deeper - a point his son Michael, who features on the documentary, takes up. He says the old fraud convictions are painful for his father.

"I don't think he'll ever forget it."

But they also drive him - as though he's saying "you treated me like shit and now I will have my revenge".

Luckily "he's a person of strong character and he didn't let any of it affect him. He turned it all into positive energy and sent himself in a good direction".

Di Stefano's positive energy is now directed to buying a decommissioned aircraft carrier - HMS Vengeance. Why, wondered the Devil's Advocate interviewer? "To house 300 people from Her Majesty's nicks". Plus "you've got space for a thousand asylum seekers at £75 to £100 a week. It's not a bad deal".

Hardtalk's Jessel suggests "there's an extent to which you live in a fairly enjoyable fantasy land".

"Why?", Di Stefano replies, genuinely aggrieved. "I'm here. I bleed. I'm a normal person and I'm very successful."

But he isn't normal. As he tells Jessel, he runs his life like an amoral animal, driven only by satisfying needs. "Animals don't think about the future. They think about living today. They don't plan for their death, but they can be eaten tomorrow. I just move on and move forward."

* Email Chris Barton

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