RACING tycoon Bernie Ecclestone has gone on trial accused of bribing a German banker – a charge which could see him jailed for a decade if convicted.
The 83-year-old allegedly made the payment to secure the sale of the Formula One business to a company he preferred, and which would allow him to retain his post as chief executive.
He denied the charges at the start of the proceedings at Munich District Court yesterday.
“The sun is shining, I am confident,” said Ecclestone to waiting news crews as he arrived at court.
In court, he managed to raise a smile with Judge Peter Noll – despite past comments from him that he viewed Ecclestone with suspicion – when he joked about an apparent error in the indictment which described him as divorced.
He recently married a Brazilian 40 years his junior.
When asked if he was married or divorced, he at first replied “both”.
“I like to remember the divorce part,” he told the court, to much laughter.
He then listened to a 22-page indictment from prosecutors before his defence lawyers read out his statement, stating that the charges were “inaccurate, misleading and inconclusive”.
His lawyers read his statement because of his poor eyesight.
The complex case revolves around the part-sale of the Formula One business eight years ago by Munich-based Bayern Landesbank to Britain’s CVC Capital Partners.
German prosecutors allege that Ecclestone paid £27 million to Dr Gerhard Gribkowsky, who was on the board of Bayern Landesbank, to ensure that their 47 per cent stake in Formula One was sold to a private equity group of Ecclestone’s choice.
They claim that by securing the sale of the stake to a firm he favoured, he would remain in charge of Formula One and its commercial rights, broadcast payments and sponsorship deals.
The payments were allegedly made between July 2006 and December 2007.
Ecclestone admits giving Gribkowsky the cash – but claims the payment was in fact “blackmail” money.
He says that Gribkowsky became “starstruck” with the high-octane world of Formula One and wanted a job in the sport.
He claims Gribkowsky threatened to make up a story about the trust fund of his then-wife, Slavica, that would have landed him in trouble with British tax authorities.
He said it was “easier” for him to pay Gribkowsky the £27m than get bogged down in a war with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.
“If I didn’t pay, it could have cost me £2 billion,” Ecclestone insisted. “It was clear he wanted money,” he added. Newspaper reports that suggested Ecclestone might “buy” his freedom with a £220m payment to German authorities were wrong, according to legal experts.
Such a deal could only be on the table if he pleaded guilty.
The German prosecution case is detailed in a 256-page document which one newspaper described as “painting a picture of a man desperate to protect his sporting empire at all costs”.
Gribkowsky was jailed for eight-and-a-half years in 2012 for bribe-taking after a trial in which Ecclestone testified.
Gribkowsky will now be the star witness in Ecclestone’s trial.
Ecclestone faces the same judge who convicted Gribkowsky. There are no juries in German court cases.
Judge Noll, when sentencing Gribkowsky, previously said that he viewed the tycoon as the driving force who had used his “charm and sophistication” to lead the banker into criminality.
Donald McKenzie, co-founder of CVC, has already said Ecclestone would be fired if he was ever found guilty of criminal wrongdoing.
The trial is expected to run for 26 days, and will sit for two days a week until the middle of September.