Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone is to be put on trial by a German court on corruption allegations. Ecclestone, who denies the charges, has stepped down from the F1 board but will continue to run the organization.
A spokesperson for Munich state court confirmed on Thursday that it had decided to send to trial an indictment against the head of the Formula One racing circuit, on allegations of bribery and incitement to misappropriation in connection with a 2006 deal.
Bernie Ecclestone, 83, who was indicted last July, is accused of having paid 44 million dollars (33 million euros) to Gerhard Gribkowsky, an executive with the German bank Bayern LB.
Prosecutors allege that the payment was a bribe to facilitate the sale of F1's commercial rights to their current holders, CVC Capital Partners, at an undervalued price. The "ownership," of the rights, which strictly speaking is a century-long lease, had fallen into BayernLB's lap after the bankruptcy of German media mogul Leo Kirch in 2002.
Testimony at the Gribkowsky trial
Ecclestone testified as part of Gribkowsky's trial back in November 2011, when he claimed that he had been the victim of a "subtle shake-down" by the former board member and risk assessment manager at BayernLB. Ecclestone said Gribkowsky had subtly made it clear that if he was not paid, he would set into motion a tax audit against Ecclestone and his entire business empire.
Ecclestone received immunity from prosecution based on his testimony, but the Munich court also reserved the right to press charges regarding evidence uncovered elsewhere in the case.
Stepping down from F1 board
Ecclestone, who, under German law would be required to appear in court to face the charges, has denied any wrongdoing. A statement released by his German lawyers, Sven Thomas and Norbert Scharf, on Thursday said that "the alleged bribery did not happen."
"The accusations in the indictment based on Gribkowsky's statement are unfounded and do not ... add up to a coherent picture," they added.
Ecclestone on Thursday stepped down from the F1 board of directors, though he will remain in charge of its day-to-day activities.
The board's holding company said in a statement it had reaffirmed Ecclestone that he is "innocent of the charges and intends to vigorously defend the case."
It added that the board "believes that it is in the best interests of both the F1 business and the sport that Mr. Ecclestone should continue to run the business on a day-to-day basis, but subject to increased monitoring and control."
If convicted, the F1 supremo could face up to 10 years in jail.
A date has not yet been set for the trial, but the court spokesperson said it would likely begin around the end of April.
pfd,dr/ph (dpa, SID, AP)