Formula One chief executive Bernie Ecclestone is set to remain the figurehead of the motor-racing series after a German court today (Tuesday) dropped a bribery case against him following the 83-year-old agreeing a $100m (€73.5m) payment to end the trial.
The Munich state court dropped proceedings against Ecclestone just hours after prosecutors agreed to the payment. German law permits prosecutors to agree to end a case in exchange for conditions such as a fine or community work, as long as “the gravity of guilt” does not make such a move impossible.
Presiding judge Peter Noll said $99m of the settlement would go to the Bavarian state while $1m would be donated to a “child hospice foundation”. “There was no conclusion on guilt or innocence of the defendant,” court spokeswoman Andrea Titz said, according to the Associated Press news agency. “He is leaving this courtroom a free man.”
The court case had commenced in April, with Ecclestone facing charges of bribing a public official. A 256-page indictment against Ecclestone accused the Briton of bribing German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky with the aim of further cementing his position as F1’s powerbroker. Ecclestone denied the charges, claiming he was the victim of a blackmail campaign.
April’s proceedings commenced after a damages claim filed by media company Constantin Medien against Ecclestone was rejected in February. However, a UK High Court judge did say that the Formula One Group chief executive paid a bribe amid the sale of the motor-racing business in 2005. In his approved judgement at the High Court in London, Mr Justice Newey said there had been a “corrupt” deal with Gribkowsky to aid F1’s sale to a preferred buyer. However, he added that it could not be demonstrated that Constantin suffered a financial loss resulting from the arrangement, adding that this fact proved “fatal” to the German company’s claim.
Constantin Medien was seeking damages over the agreement that made private equity group CVC Capital Partners F1’s main shareholder. Constantin was seeking about $140m in compensation over claims that Ecclestone and three other defendants – the F1 chief’s former lawyer Stephen Mullens, the Ecclestone family's Bambino Holdings and Gribkowsky – deliberately undervalued Formula One when CVC bought into the business in 2005.
Gribkowsky, former chief risk officer at BayernLB (BLB), has already been jailed for more than eight years for tax evasion and bribery after being found guilty of taking a $44m payment from Ecclestone as part of the deal. BayernLB was one of the banks left in control of Formula One after the collapse of German businessman Leo Kirch’s media empire, which owned the rights to the sport. BayernLB sold a 47-per-cent stake to CVC for about $830m in 2005.
The indictment at the Munich court alleged that the $44m payment and the promise of future employment in Formula One influenced Gribkowsky to act against the interest of his employers, aiding the sale of Bayern LB’s share in a move that guaranteed to keep Ecclestone in place as chief executive.
Titz today said that after hearing the evidence so far, “the court did not consider a conviction overwhelmingly likely from the present point of view.” She added the court also noted that Ecclestone faced the charges “despite his advanced age, despite his poor health” and despite the fact that the lengthy, high-profile proceedings in a foreign language were “a significant strain for him.”
Ahead of today’s ruling, Ecclestone’s lawyer Sven Thomas told UK newspaper the Independent that the payment “is a settlement without any conviction, the presumption of innocence is still valid. That was a condition under which I negotiated.”
He added: “(A settlement) takes away the risks and is a kind of acquittal, which otherwise would take the next three, four or five months. There will always be a remaining risk. Defence means to mitigate the risks step by step. That’s defence. The settlement puts an end to the trial for all times. No one can try with this case once again. It is binding, like a sentence which can’t be appealed.”
Constantin last week confirmed it is pursuing its claim for damages against Ecclestone. The company has submitted an application for the appeal to the UK’s Court of Appeal and said that the judicial committee will make a ruling “presumably” this autumn.
CVC co-chairman Donald Mackenzie had said he would fire Ecclestone if he was found guilty. Ecclestone had faced up to 10 years in jail if convicted.