Bernie Ecclestone’s long-awaited trial over bribery charges got underway on Thursday in Munich. The outcome of what is expected to be a lengthy case will ultimately determine whether the F1 supremo will continue his reign as the sport’s commercial rights holder.
Ecclestone was present on the trial’s opening day to hear the prosecution and his defence team’s opening remarks to the court.
He is accused of paying a $44 million bribe to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to help ensure that the stake in the sport being sold in 2006 went to his preferred bidder, CVC Capital Partners.
While Ecclestone has admitted to making the payment to Grobkowsky – who was himself sentenced to eight-and-a-half years behind bars after being found guilty of bribery and tax evasion – he claims the payment came because of a “shakedown” by the banker, who had threatened to make allegations to the British tax authorities over Ecclestone’s financial affairs.
Not surprisingly, the prosecutors have argued that Ecclestone was “not the victim of an extortion but the accomplice in an act of bribery”.
“Mr. Ecclestone defends himself against the accusations of the prosecutors and denies them,” his defence team countered. “The alleged bribery never happened. The charges are based on statements by Dr. Gribkowsky that are incorrect, misleading and incoherent. The real course of events does not support the accusations.”
Ecclestone faced some damaging judicial comments earlier this year, despite having a ruling issued in his favour. London High Court judge Mr Justice Newey dismissed claims from the German media company, Constantin Medien, that it had lost over $140 million amid claims that its shareholding was undervalued during the sale to CVC.
“The payments were a bribe. They were made because Mr Ecclestone had entered into a corrupt agreement with Dr Gribkowsky on May 2005 under which Dr Gribkowsky was to be rewarded for facilitating the sale of BLB’s shares in the F1 Group to a buyer acceptable to Mr Ecclestone,” Justice Newey wrote.
“Even making allowances for the lapse of time and Mr Ecclestone’s age, I am afraid that I find it impossible to regard him as a reliable or truthful witness,” he added, more tellingly.
The outcome of this newest trial will be significant for both Ecclestone and the future of Formula 1. Should Ecclestone be found guilty of having committed a criminal offence, he would be fired from his post by the CVC board, its co-chairman Donald Mackenzie has confirmed.
The trial will run for two days per week to allow Ecclestone to continue in his day-to-day running of Formula 1. The trial is not expected to conclude until towards the end of this year.
Image via AFP