A SHAMED ex-beauty queen, who was engaged to one of Britain’s most notorious conmen, has been convicted of fraud after claiming legal aid – despite having over £30,000 of savings.
Former Miss Edinburgh, Nicola Gonelli, told her solicitor she had no savings while applying for legal aid to get a divorce.
In fact she had investments worth up to £31,828.26.
The 45-year old was seeking legal aid over custody arrangements for her son and the fight for ownership of her home, which was under a joint mortgage with her ex-husband.
On Thursday at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, Sheriff Fiona Reith, QC ordered Ms Gonelli to pay a compensation order of £426.08 to the Legal Aid Board, after being found guilty of obtaining legal aid fraudulently.
Ms Gonelli made two applications to the Scottish Legal Aid Board in November 2010, claiming she had no capital or savings, which were both granted.
The Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) authorised a total expenditure of £1,150.
But after officials from the Scottish Legal Aid board investigated her case they discovered that she was not entitled to the help due to her true financial position.
A spokesperson for the Scottish Legal Aid Board said: “Unfortunately, there will be a small number of people who will attempt to defraud or abuse the legal aid system.
“We investigate the information provided by applicants for legal aid. We also investigate representations made to us about applicants’ financial circumstances by other parties in civil cases and we can check with banks and employers to verify information the applicant gives to us.
“In the most serious cases, we report people to the Procurator Fiscal. In other cases, we will withdraw legal aid and recover amounts paid.”
Ms Gonelli has been told she can pay back the money in installments of £5 a week, as she is currently unemployed and seeking Job Seekers Allowance.
Back in 2000, Gonelli was due to marry serial fraudster, Paul Bint, who told her he was a high-flying advocate and showered her with expensive gifts including a £14,000 Cartier watch and £26,000 engagement ring.
Ms Gonelli said today that the money, which she had been left by her mother, was not readily available, and she had not even considered using it.
She said: “I had put the money in a roll over bonds that I couldn’t touch until it had matured.
“I get a yearly letter, but apart from that it wasn’t part of my life. It was for my son’s education.”
She said she is now eager to get her life back on track, and not let this charge stain her reputation.
She said: “My friend has paid for me to go on a training course, it’s really important for me to get my life back on track.
“I am terrified this could ruin my reputation, something that seems so unfair.”
Nicola Gonelli later admitted she had made a “terrible mistake” and feared further media notoriety as a result.
She said: “I wasn’t thinking clearly, that lead me to make this terrible mistake which I fully accept I was wrong. It was wrong.”
“I absolutely accept that it was wrong, and I am happy to pay back the legal aid board.
“I have no bad feelings towards that. It’s just been so stupid of me.”
“I have no intention of something like this happening again. I didn’t do anything intentionally whatsoever. “
Speaking on the phone from her home in the Leith area of Edinburgh, she added: “The fact I am called a fraudster is abhorrent to me.
“It sounds like it’s what I do but, that’s just not the type of person I am.
Referring to the media storm over her relationship with conman Bint, she added: “I don’t understand why anyone would want to do this – why I would willingly put myself back into the public eye after last time.
“It’s awful. I’ve been hiding from the papers for a long time.
“I want to go and dye my hair blonde and wear contact lenses.”