By GEIR MOULSON
A German court on Tuesday dropped the bribery case against Bernie Ecclestone after the Formula 1 chief agreed to make a $100 million payment, ending a trial that lasted more than three months.
The Munich state court announced its decision to drop proceedings against the 83-year-old Ecclestone hours after prosecutors said they had agreed to the move. Ecclestone is now free to concentrate on running the global racing series. He went on trial in late April on charges of bribery and incitement to breach of trust, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
After hearing the evidence so far, "the court did not consider a conviction overwhelmingly likely from the present point of view," court spokeswoman Andrea Titz said. With Tuesday's decision, "there was no conclusion on guilt or innocence of the defendant," she said. "He is leaving this courtroom a free man."
Banker Sentenced, Serving Time
The charges involved a $44 million payment to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is serving an 8½-year sentence for taking the money. Gribkowsky was convicted of corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust in a trial led by the same judge who heard Ecclestone's case, Peter Noll.
Ecclestone denied wrongdoing and contends that Gribkowsky, who was in charge of selling German bank BayernLB's 47 percent stake in F1 in 2005, blackmailed him. The court said it seriously doubted that bribery could be proven.
Prosecutors alleged that the payment was meant to facilitate the sale of Munich-based bank Bayern LB's stake in Formula 1 to a buyer of Ecclestone's liking. Still, the court noted in Tuesday's decision that witness testimony suggested that the sale of the stake to CVC Capital Partners was "an unexpectedly profitable deal" for the bank.
German law allows for prosecutors to agree to drop a case in exchange for conditions such as a fine or community work, so long as "the gravity of guilt" does not stand in the way. Such deals, which have to be approved by the court hearing the case, are common in Germany though they rarely involve anything close to the amount of money Ecclestone will pay. The $100 million is believed to be a record for such a payment.
What Ecclestone Went Through
Noll stressed that the size of the payment took into account the assets of the defendant, and said Ecclestone had given assurances that the $100 million represented "an appreciable portion" of his wealth without overburdening him, news agency dpa reported. According to Forbes magazine, Ecclestone and his family are worth $4.2 billion.
Of the payment, $99 million will go to the German state, and the remaining $1 million will go to a German organization that helps terminally ill children. Ecclestone has a week to pay up.
The court 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," Titz said.
Ecclestone's defense team called last week for the proceedings to be dropped, citing a lack of evidence that the Englishman was criminally responsible and asserting that the proceedings were a strain for their client. He has been running F1 while attending twice-weekly court sessions in Munich.
Ecclestone's lawyers agreed on the $100 million payment in talks with prosecutors over recent days. Prosecutor Christian Weiss said Tuesday that ending the trial would be justified in view of the long proceedings, Ecclestone's age and other extenuating circumstances.
$100 Million Payment Ends Formula 1 Chief's Bribery Trial
By GEIR MOULSON
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