Bernie Ecclestone has been cleared of conspiring to undervalue the price of F1 shares by a High Court judge after lengthy deliberation into a case brought by Constantin Medien.
Alleged to have struck a 'corrupt bargain' with BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky in order to secure a price for F1 shares favourable to CVC Capital Partners, Ecclestone was being sued for damages by Constantin, which believes that it was denied a cut of the profits when the $814m price did not reach the set $1.1bn minimum at the time of the sale back in 2006.
Ecclestone was the most recognisable defendant of four accused by Constantin of conspiring to cut it out of a share of the proceeds when CVC bought up BayernLB's stake in F1, with Ecclestone also alleged to be favouring CVC's bid because he know the company was open to retaining him as the head of the sport.
Ecclestone was accused of paying Gribkowsky a $44m bribe to secure the deal, but has always insisted that the payment – which he does not deny making – was the result of Gribkowsky blackmailing him with the threat of revealing his tax affairs. The German has since been jailed on charges of bribery and tax evasion and is serving an eight-and-a-half year stretch.
Mr Justice Newey, after hearing both sides give evidence over a seven-week spell that ended in mid-December, opted to reserve judgement on the case and retired to deliberate on what had been presented. In the end, however, he decided that BayernLB's shares were not undervalued as a result of Ecclestone's involvement with Gribkowsky, although he did believe that Ecclestone's payment to Gribkowsky constituted a bribe, and that the family lawyer Stephen Mullens had also played his part. Ecclestone's claim that he was being blackmailed by the banker was dismissed as 'thoroughly implausible'.
“The payments were a bribe,” Newey wrote in his conclusions, “They were made because Mr Ecclestone had entered into a corrupt agreement with Dr Gribkowsky in May 2005 under which Dr Gribkowsky was to be rewarded for facilitating the sale of BLB's shares in the Formula One group to a buyer acceptable to Mr Ecclestone.
“Mr Ecclestone's aim was to be rid of the banks [that had acquired the shares following the collapse of Kirch Media
]. He was strongly averse to their involvement in the Formula One group and was keen that their shares should be transferred to someone more congenial to him.
“Mr Mullens was complicit in the corrupt arrangement, but [Ecclestone family trust
] Bambino was not. The claim fails as against Bambino for that (as well as other) reasons.
“It was no part of Mr Ecclestone's purpose (or Mr Mullens') for BLB's shares to be sold at an undervalue, and neither Mr Ecclestone nor Mr Mullens had any desire for the shares to be sold at an undervalue or believed the price at which they were in fact sold to be below market value. Mr Ecclestone was probably conscious of a risk that the shares would be sold for less as a result of his arrangement with Dr Gribkowsky, but that has not been established as against Mr Mullens. The claim fails as against Mr Mullens for that (as well as other) reasons.
“No loss to Constantin has been shown to have been caused by the corrupt arrangement with Dr Gribkowsky. That fact is fatal to the claim as against all the defendants.
“Constantin's claim would anyway have failed as a matter of German law (which I consider to be the applicable law) because (a) any loss it might have suffered would be reflective of loss suffered by BLB and (b) none of the defendants had any knowledge of the overage rights on which Constantin's claim is founded. Constantin's claim would also have failed had it been governed by English law.
“I shall dismiss the claim.”
The decision only serves a temporary reprieve for Ecclestone, who still looks set to face similar legal battles in Germany and Switzerland. The 83-year old had already been indicted on bribery charges by the German courts, while both Swiss authorities and, more recently, BayernLB had made it clear that they were considering the possibility of separate actions. The German bank gained access to the High Court documents as it considered its case.
Bavaria's district court has indicated that proceedings against Ecclestone could begin as early as April, but insisted last month that a date for the criminal trial had not yet been determined. Ecclestone is charged with bribery – claiming that the monies forwarded to Gribkowsky were 'disguised' as consultancy payments - and incitement to breach of trust. He will be obliged to appear at the trial, whenever it takes place.
Ecclestone recently stepped down from the board of Delta Topco, the company which runs F1, but continues to run the sport on a day-to-day basis.
Constantin, meanwhile, has indicated that it intends to pursue an appeal against Mr Justice Newey's verdict.
“The judge ruled against Constantin essentially on technical grounds (including extremely complicated questions of German law which is the governing law in the case) and Constantin will be appealing those findings,” counsel Keith Oliver confirmed.