F1 chief Ecclestone ends bribery trial with $100-mn payment
A German court ruled Tuesday that Formula One tycoon Bernie Ecclestone can make a controversial $100-million payment 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 record 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 within one week, presiding judge Peter Noll said.
The $100-million (75-million-euro) accord is believed to be the largest of its kind in German history.
Ecclestone, a diminutive businessman who has kept firm control over F1, has a fortune estimated at $4.2 billion, according to Forbes magazine, making him one of the richest 400 people in the world.
Noll said $99 million of Ecclestone's payment would go to the Bavarian state coffers while $1 million would be donated to a child hospice foundation.
Ecclestone went on trial in the southern city of Munich in April on charges of paying a $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.
The judges based their decision on a determination that a conviction was "not particularly likely" given the evidence presented.
The court added in a statement that Ecclestone's "advanced age, health condition, the significant burden of taking part in hearings in a foreign country and the subsequent language barrier as well as the public attention directed at him" were also decisive factors.
Under the terms of the agreement, Ecclestone will not have a criminal record and should be able to retain his control of the multi-billion-dollar Formula One empire.
- 'Stinks to high heaven' -
The mop-topped magnate arrived at the courthouse Tuesday in a limousine, looking relaxed and accompanied by his much younger Brazilian wife, Fabiana Flosi.
After the judges announced their ruling, Ecclestone approached the bench to shake Noll's hand and then thanked chief prosecutor Christian Weiss.
His lawyers hit out at accusations that he had orchestrated a "buying out" of German justice.
"This abandonment of the proceedings indicates that (based) on an unbiased, objective and independent assessment of the main proceedings after more than 100 hours of evidence" before the court, they said in a statement, "a conviction of Mr Ecclestone could not be expected with any likelihood".
The proceedings were scheduled to last at least until October.
News of the accord drew angry condemnation of a legal system some said gave special dispensation to the rich and famous.
Former justice minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger had blasted reports of the Ecclestone deal Monday as "galling" and "not in harmony with the sense and purpose of our legal practices".
She called on lawmakers to tighten or eliminate the loophole, which is designed to expedite cases before overburdened courts and whose sums are calculated based on the defendant's financial means.
"The saying goes 'money doesn't stink' but that's wrong here: these millions stink to high heaven," the Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote.
The top-selling Bild denounced "the bitter impression that not everyone is equal before the law".
News website Spiegel Online said it was "scandalous" that the full truth of the case would now never come out.
The Formula One boss denied any wrongdoing but could have faced a jail term of up to 10 years if found guilty.
He was accused of paying German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky $44 million in 2006 and 2007 to ensure that shares in Formula One held by BayernLB were sold to Ecclestone'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 banker would hand over information about the Briton's tax affairs.
Gribkowsky was sentenced to eight and half years in jail in 2012.
- Hefty round sum -
CVC Capital had said that if Ecclestone were convicted then he would be removed from his position as president and chief executive of Formula One Management.
Arguing that the prosecution had failed to prove his guilt, Ecclestone offered last week to pay 25 million euros ($34 million) to put the matter behind him.
But prosecutors demanded 100 million euros, the Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported.
They eventually agreed on $100 million -- a smaller amount but one that respected the state's insistence on a hefty round sum.
Ecclestone reportedly personally negotiated the agreement with prosecutors in Munich Friday.