£59m move as Ecclestone trial ends
A German court today dropped the bribery case against Bernie Ecclestone after the Formula One chief agreed to make a 100 million US dollars (£59 million) payment, ending a trial that lasted more than three months.
The Munich state court announced its decision to drop proceedings against the 83-year-old hours after prosecutors said they had agreed to the move.
Ecclestone is now free to concentrate on running the global racing series.
He went on trial in late April on charges of bribery and incitement to breach of trust, which can carry a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
After hearing the evidence so far, "the court did not consider a conviction overwhelmingly likely from the present point of view," court spokeswoman Andrea Titz said.
With today's decision, "there was no conclusion on guilt or innocence of the defendant," she said. "He is leaving this courtroom a free man."
"Bye-bye," Ecclestone said to reporters as he left the court, adding that he was off "to take care of Formula One".
The charges involved a 44 million US dollars (£26 million) payment to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is serving an eight-and-a-half-year sentence for taking the money.
Gribkowsky was convicted of corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust in a trial led by the same judge who heard Ecclestone's case, Peter Noll.
Ecclestone denied wrongdoing and contends that Gribkowsky, who was in charge of selling German bank BayernLB's 47% stake in F1 in 2005, blackmailed him.
The court said it seriously doubted that bribery could be proven.
Prosecutors alleged that the payment was meant to facilitate the sale of Munich-based bank Bayern LB's stake in Formula One to a buyer of Ecclestone's liking.
Still, the court noted in today's decision that witness testimony suggested that the sale of the stake to CVC Capital Partners was "an unexpectedly profitable deal" for the bank.
Defence lawyer Sven Thomas welcomed the court's decision and said it showed that there would have been a "clear option of acquittal" had the trial continued, news agency dpa reported.
"I have the feeling he is relieved," Mr Thomas said of Ecclestone.
German law allows for prosecutors to agree to drop a case in exchange for conditions such as a fine or community work, so long as "the gravity of guilt" does not stand in the way.
Such deals, which have to be approved by the court hearing the case, are common in Germany, though they rarely involve anything close to the amount of money Ecclestone will pay. The 100 million US dollars is believed to be a record for such a payment.
Mr Noll, the judge, stressed that the size of the payment took into account the assets of the defendant and said Ecclestone had given assurances that the payment represented "an appreciable portion" of his wealth without overburdening him.
According to Forbes magazine, Ecclestone and his family are worth 4.2 billion US dollars (£2.49 billion).
Most of the payment, 99 million US dollars (£58 million), will go to the German state. The remaining one million US dollars (£593,000) will go to a German organisation that helps terminally-ill children. Ecclestone has a week to pay up.
The court noted that Ecclestone faced the charges "despite his advanced age, despite his poor health" and despite the fact that the lengthy, high-profile proceedings in a foreign language were "a significant strain for him," Ms Titz said.
Ecclestone's defence team called last week for the proceedings to be dropped, citing a lack of evidence that the Englishman was criminally responsible and asserting that the proceedings were a strain for their client.
He has been running F1 while attending twice-weekly court sessions in Munich.
Ecclestone's lawyers agreed on the payment in talks with prosecutors over recent days.
Prosecutor Christian Weiss said that ending the trial would be justified in view of the long proceedings, Ecclestone's age and other extenuating circumstances.