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Munich court indicts Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone on bribery charges

Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has been indicted by German prosecutors for alleged bribery. He stands accused of bribing a German bank executive over the sale of a stake of the motor-racing franchise.

Ecclestone was indicted on Wednesday in connection with a $44-milllion (currently 33.5 million euros) payment made to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, a prosecutor's spokeswoman in Munich reported.

"The indictment has been served to him," Margarete Noetzel told news agency DPA.

Gribkowsky was sentenced to eight-and-a-half years in jail last June for accepting the payment and not paying taxes on it in Germany.

Ecclestone, 82, has denied bribery, accusing the former BayernLB board member and chief risk assessment officer of blackmailing him into the payment.

Motive, not money, in question

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," strictly speaking it's a century-long lease, of the marketing rights had fallen into BayernLB's lap after the bankruptcy of German media mogul Leo Kirch.

One week before the verdict, Gribkowsky broke his silence in court and said that the allegations against him were "essentially true," a move that elicited little surprise from Ecclestone at the time.

"I suppose he would say that, so maybe he gets seven years instead of 14 years," Ecclestone said at the time. "The poor guy has been banged up for 18 months. He would have said anything to save himself. He was going to be locked up whatever happens."

Ecclestone testified as part of Gribkowsky's trial in Munich, saying in November 2011 that he was the victim of a "subtle shake-down" by the former board member and risk assessment manager at the BayernLB bank. The 82-year-old said Gribkowsky subtly made it clear that if he wasn't paid, he would set a tax audit in motion against Ecclestone and his notoriously opaque business empire.

Ecclestone received immunity from prosecution based on the testimony, but the court in Munich kept the right to press charges regarding evidence uncovered elsewhere in the case.

Pass the F1 parcel

After buying F1 in 2006, CVC Captial Partners appointed Ecclestone as a consultant. The "commercial supremo," as he's commonly called in the paddock, has remained at the forefront of the sport on behalf of the rather silent owners.

CVC has since started diluting its share in the sport, currently holding around 35 percent - still more than any other stakeholder. Plans to float a further share in F1 on the Singapore stock market were first mooted last summer, but CVC has stalled since.

The last F1 race took place in Germany, when Sebastian Vettel won his first home Grand Prix at the Nürburgring on July 7.

Ecclestone has been at or near F1's commercial helm for more than 30 years; no successor has yet emerged for the 82-year-old, although he said late last year that if prosecutors in Munich pounced, he would likely have to step aside.

msh/rc (dpa, AP)