A German court yesterday ruled that Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone can pay a controversial US$100 million settlement to end his trial on bribery charges.
In a move that will likely see him stay at the helm of the lucrative sport, the 83-year-old Briton struck an accord with prosecutors on the huge payment which then got the Munich tribunal’s blessing.
“The proceedings will be temporarily suspended with the agreement of the prosecution and the accused,” pending payment of the settlement within one week, presiding Judge Peter Noll said.
The 75 million euro (US$100 million) payment is reportedly the largest accord of its kind in German criminal justice history.
Noll said US$99 million of the settlement would go to the Bavarian State coffers, while US$1 million would be donated to a “child hospice foundation.”
When Noll asked Ecclestone through an interpreter if he could make the payment within a week, to which the Briton replied: “Yes.”
Ecclestone went on trial in the southern city of Munich in April on charges of paying a US$44 million bribe to a Bavarian state bank executive for help in maintaining his four-decade grip on Formula One.
A settlement is allowed in German criminal cases if the prosecution, the aggrieved parties and the court agree, but the Ecclestone deal has stoked fierce criticism.
Court spokesman Andrea Titz said the judges had determined that a conviction was “not particularly likely” based on the evidence presented until now.
Under the agreement, Ecclestone will not have a criminal record and should be able to retain control of the multibillion-dollar F1 empire. He attended most of the hearings in person and arrived at the court yesterday in a limousine, looking relaxed and accompanied by his young wife, Fabiana Flosi.
Ecclestone’s defense team and prosecutors struck the deal to settle the case with a one-time payment rather than continue with proceedings that had been scheduled to last until at least October.
News of the accord drew condemnation of a legal proviso in Germany that lets defendants “buy” a dismissal in some instances.
Former German minister of justice Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger blasted the possible deal on Monday as “galling” and “not in harmony with the sense and purpose of our legal practices.”
She called on lawmakers to tighten — if not scrap — the loophole designed to expedite cases before overburdened courts and whose sums are calculated based on the defendant’s financial means.
The top-selling Bild denounced “the bitter impression that not everyone is equal before the law,” while the Sueddeutsche Zeitung lashed out at a deal in which “the briber is supposed to be washed clean with a spectacular payment.”
“The saying goes: ‘Money doesn’t stink,’ but that’s wrong here: these millions stink to high heaven,” the newspaper said.
The F1 magnate has denied any wrongdoing, but could have faced up to 10 years in jail if found guilty.
Ecclestone was accused of paying German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky US$44 million in 2006 and 2007 to ensure that shares in F1 held by BayernLB were sold to the Briton’s preferred bidder, CVC Capital Partners of Britain, now the sport’s majority shareholder.
Ecclestone admitted paying the money, but said it was given to Gribkowsky to end blackmail threats that the latter would hand over information about the former’s tax affairs.