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Bernie Ecclestone to step down at F1 for bribery trial

The 83-year-old magnate has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in relation to bribery allegations against him.

Ecclestone: denies any wrongdoing.
Ecclestone: denies any wrongdoing.
Image: James Moy/James Moy Photography/Press Association Images

BERNIE ECCLESTONE WILL step down as the head of Formula One pending the outcome of a bribery trial in Germany.

The British businessman is due to stand trial in Munich in April over allegations he bribed former German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky during negotiations concerning the sale of F1 championship rights.

The 83-year-old magnate has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and intends to continue to run the sport on “a day-to-day basis”.

“Mr Ecclestone has reassured the board that he is innocent of the charges and intends to vigorously defend the case which will commence in late April 2014,” read a statement from the F1 holding company, Delta Topco Limited.

“After discussion with the board, Mr Ecclestone has proposed and the board has agreed that until the case has been concluded, he will step down as a director with immediate effect, thereby relinquishing his board duties and responsibilities until the case has been resolved.

“The board believes that it is in the best interests of both the F1 business and the sport that Mr Ecclestone should continue to run the business on a day-to-day basis, but subject to increased monitoring and control by the board. Mr Ecclestone has agreed to these arrangements.”

Ecclestone was charged last July in relation to a €32 million payment he made to Gribkowsky which was linked to the sale of the Formula One championship rights in 2006.

“According to current plans, the trial is set to start at the end of April,” the regional court in the southern German city of Munich said in a statement.

Ecclestone has been under investigation on suspicion of bribery and incitement of fraud since Gribkowsky was convicted of taking an illegal payment when the Formula One rights were sold in a 2006 deal.

The case revolves around rights held by the German bank BayernLB and sold to Britain’s CVC Capital Partners for $830 million, the court said.

Ecclestone received a $66 million commission from Gribkowsky as part of the deal.

Then the Formula One boss allegedly gave him $44 million of the sum back in exchange for Gribkowsky ensuring that the buyer of his choosing, CVC, would get the rights.

In so doing, prosecutors say, Ecclestone could maintain more control over Formula One business.

Last June, Gribkowsky was sentenced to eight and a half years in jail in Munich. Ecclestone has always denied bribing the German, claiming he was blackmailed by Gribkowsky.

Having appeared at Gribkowsky’s trial, Ecclestone told the Munich state court he felt pressured into paying the cash because he was worried the banker would make unfounded allegations about his tax affairs to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs.

“I paid because he threatened to go to the Inland Revenue,” the diminutive tycoon said at the time.

Ecclestone has put a brave face on the proceedings.

“This is about me proving my innocence,” Ecclestone told German business paper Handelsblatt Thursday.

“That is why I will go to Munich for this trial.”

When asked whether he could keep hold of the reins at Formula One while facing court, Ecclestone said: “In Britain there is the presumption of innocence, you are not guilty until such a verdict has been reached.”

His defence team said that statements implicating Ecclestone made by Gribkowsky during his trial were “inaccurate and do not present a coherent story given the facts”.

“The claimed bribery never happened,” the lawyers, Sven Thomas and Norbert Scharf, said in a statement.

Having been at the top of Formula One for four decades, Ecclestone could face a jail term if convicted by the same court that tried Gribkowsky.

He is also enmeshed in a civil case in London, accused of striking a “corrupt bargain” in a bid to maintain his grip on the sport.

A German media group, Constantin Medien, which claims it lost out in a deal to sell the Formula One group, launched legal action against Ecclestone and three other defendants.

Constantin is seeking more than $100 million in damages. Media reports said a verdict in the case is expected in the coming days.

And Swiss prosecutors announced in October they were opening their own probe into the issue, in the latest challenge to Ecclestone’s authority in a sport he had helped turn into a billion-dollar business.

Ecclestone’s rise began in the late 1970s when he bought Formula One’s television and marketing rights and has built it up into one of the world’s most profitable sports events.

- © AFP, 2014

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