Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone disputed paying a bribe to ensure he stayed in control of the glamorous motorsport series, and then fabricating the reason to pay a banker.
Under cross-examination at the High Court in London on Wednesday, Ecclestone said he was blackmailed by the banker tasked with selling a significant stake in F1, and paid him off to avoid being reported to the authorities over his tax affairs.
"I made up my mind he needed to be kept quiet," Ecclestone said after claiming he was "shaken down" by BayernLB’s Gerhard Gribkowsky.
Former F1 shareholder Constantin Medien contests that Ecclestone and his family trust entered into a "corrupt bargain" with Gribkowsky to ensure BayernLB’s 47 percent F1 stake was sold in 2005 to the buyer desired by the sport’s long-standing commercial chief.
Gribkowsky received an alleged bribe totaling $44 million which led to investment group CVC Capital Partners acquiring the stake. Constantin Medien, a German media company, is suing Ecclestone and other defendants for up to $144 million, claiming F1 was undervalued by the BayernLB deal.
Ecclestone maintained Wednesday that at the time of the deal — and now — he was not trying to safeguard his own future in F1.
"As long as I have got control of the company I will continue to be there … I am in a fortunate position — I don’t need a job," Ecclestone said.
Asked by Constantin Medien lawyer Philip Marshall about the prospect of retirement, the 83-year-old Ecclestone replied: "I don’t mind, I’ve got plenty of things to do."
In a case that could threaten Ecclestone’s future with F1, a German court is deciding whether he will stand trial on charges of bribery and incitement to breach of trust. Ecclestone’s legal team maintains that a "consultancy package" was paid to Gribkowsky, who was jailed in Germany last year for 8 years for taking the payment.
In the High Court, Ecclestone was asked why he responded to the apparent blackmail threat by seeking the advice of an in-house accountant rather than lawyers, and did not approach the police.
"It doesn’t make any sense," Marshall said. "You are in a situation where you are being asked to pay millions of dollars over a threat or an insinuation that may cause you tax problems. You don’t ask any of the lawyers … that’s just something (a reason) you fabricated. You have made it up."
Ecclestone, appearing for the first time in person in the second week of the civil trial, spoke quietly at times and regularly banged the desk as he grew increasingly frustrated with questioning.
Ecclestone said he was happy to pay Gribkowsky $22.5 million himself to avoid any potential tax investigation, and saw little point in contacting the police.
"I wanted to get rid of (Gribkowsky) making silly statements," Ecclestone said.
Ecclestone built his powerbase in F1 from the 1970s and helped to create the Formula One Constructors’ Association that controlled the business side of the series, including selling the TV rights.
The British-based company later became known as Formula One Management.
CVC, having amassed a 63 percent stake of F1, has reduced its holding as other investors have come on board in recent years, although a planned flotation has stalled.
Constantin Medien is claiming it lost out due to the deal negotiated by Gribkowsky, who is a defendant in the case along with Ecclestone lawyer Stephen Mullens and the Ecclestone family trust, Bambino Holdings.