Auto Racing / Sports

Formula One chief's bribery trial ends with record 100-million-dollar payment

Munich (dpa) -- Formula One chief Bernie Ecclestone's bribery trial ended Tuesday after a Munich court accepted his record 100-million-dollar settlement offer.

The 83-year-old British billionaire agreed to make the payment within one week. Prosecutors also approved the settlement.

"He leaves this court a free man," a court spokeswoman said.

Ecclestone had been accused of paying a 44-million-dollar kickback to a German banker in 2006 to ensure that the motor racing business was sold to a preferred buyer, CVC Capital Partners.

The settlement was "based on the financial circumstances of the accused," Judge Peter Noll said after his decision to accept Ecclestone's offer, which was the highest in German criminal history.

The judge added that conclusions on Ecclestone's possible guilt in the case could not be drawn from the size of the settlement.

Ecclestone had assured the court that the 100 million dollars represented a "noticeable proportion" of his assets, but that he would not be unduly burdened by making the payment, Noll said.

Of the settlement, 99 million dollars is to be paid to the Bavarian state government with 1 million dollars going to an institute for child care, the Deutsche Kinderhospiz-Stiftung.

The case, which opened in April, had been originally due to run until September.

"I have the feeling that he is relieved," Ecclestone's lawyer Sven Thomas said after the acquittal of the case.

Now all the "gossip" about him wanting to buy his freedom could end, said Thomas.

"This is not a deal," said Thomas. "This has nothing to do with buying freedom."

Prosecutor Christian Weiss told the court in Munich that ending the case was justified in the light of Ecclestone's advanced age, the length of the proceedings and other extenuating circumstances.

If he had been found guilty the diminutive former second car salesman could have faced a jail term of up to 10 years.

Noll's decision to accept the settlement allows Ecclestone to retain control of the sport that he turned into a multi-billion-dollar business after acquiring the global television rights for Formula One in the 1970s. The court considers him innocent of all charges.

"It would have been a disaster for the Formula One if Bernie had been forced to stop," said Niki Lauda, the Austrian-born three-time F1 World Champion and member of the Mercedes motor racing team board.

Ecclestone had admitted to paying Gerhard Gribkowsky, a former banker with Munich-based BayernLB, but denied any wrongdoing.

The F1 chief alleged that Gribkowsky had threatened to make false statements about his tax affairs to the British tax authorities.

Gribkowsky was sentenced in 2012 to eight-and-a-half years in jail for tax evasion and corruption for accepting the money.

Eccleston has faced other controversies in recent years.

In 2005, he was forced to apologize after making sexist remarks about women racing drivers.

Four years later he was forced to publicly apologize for saying Adolf Hitler had been "able to get things done".

Ecclestone stepped down from the board of the company that runs the Formula One Group in January, after the Munich court ruled that he had to stand trial over the bribery allegations.

But he has continued to have oversight of the business on a day-to-day basis.

(c)2014 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)

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