MUNICH, Germany, (Reuters) – Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone denied bribery charges yesterday at the start of a trial in Germany that threatens to break his decades-long dominance of motor racing.
Prosecutors accuse the 83-year-old Briton of bribing banker Gerhard Gribkowsky by channelling $44 million to him in return for smoothing the sale of a stake in Formula One to private equity firm CVC eight years ago.
They say that Ecclestone favoured CVC as the new owner because it was committed to keeping him on as chief executive of the business.
The former used-car salesman, who became a billionaire by building motor racing into a global money spinner over the past four decades, is fighting to save his job and his reputation. He faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted.
“Gribkowsky did not tell the truth at crucial points,” Ecclestone told the court in a 100-page statement read out in German on his behalf by his lawyer Sven Thomas.
Ecclestone maintains that he was the victim of coercion by Gribkowsky. He said Gribkowsky was threatening to make damaging claims about his tax affairs that could have cost him and his family much of their fortune.
“I saw my life’s work in danger,” he said in his statement, explaining that was why he had paid $22.7 million to Gribkowsky.
Ecclestone, wearing a dark suit, sat at a wooden desk flanked by his lawyers and with an interpreter at his side to translate for him on the first day of a case due to last until September.
JOB AT RISK
CVC remains the largest shareholder in the business, which generates annual revenues of over $1.5 billion from its series of grand prix races around the world. CVC co-chairman Donald Mackenzie has said he would fire Ecclestone if he was found guilty of wrongdoing.
Despite his age, Ecclestone attends almost every grand prix race and remains central to the sport’s commercial success. He has always dismissed talk of retirement, and there is no obvious replacement when he does finally quit or is forced out.