LONDON (AP) — Despite a ruling damaging to his already tarnished image, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone won a multimillion-dollar case at London's High Court on Thursday relating to the sale of F1 in 2005.
The case was dismissed but the judge said it had nevertheless been a corrupt deal and questioned Ecclestone's honesty.
"Even ... making allowances for the lapse of time and Mr. Ecclestone's age, I am afraid that I find it impossible to regard him as a reliable or truthful witness," Judge Guy Newey said.
A former F1 shareholder, German media company Constantin Medien, sued Ecclestone and other defendants for up to $144 million, claiming F1 was undervalued at the time of the sale to investment group CVC Capital Partners.
The 83-year-old Ecclestone was accused of entering into a "corrupt agreement" with German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to facilitate the sale of Formula One Group to a buyer chosen by him.
The High Court said the deal was corrupt, but ruled that Constantin Medien did not lose out as a result.
"No loss to Constantin has been shown to have been caused by the corrupt arrangement with Dr. Gribkowsky," the judge said in his conclusions. "That fact is fatal to the claim."
Ecclestone's camp played down the judge's decision, arguing that his ruling was made after hearing only partial evidence.
"The judge has expressed his opinion that on the balance of probabilities there was an unlawful agreement made with Dr. Gribkowsky and that payments that Mr. Ecclestone made for Dr. Gribkowsky's benefit were a bribe, but this view is not underpinned by reliable evidence," read a statement on behalf of Ecclestone.
"The source of these allegations is Dr. Gribkowsky himself, who did not give evidence in this case. The judge expressly recognised there was clearly considerable force in the point that there had been no opportunity for Mr. Ecclestone's (and the other defendants') legal team to cross examine important witnesses, including Dr. Gribkowsky."
During the trial, which ran from October to December last year, Constantin Medien's lawyers said that payments totaling about 27 million pounds ($45 million) were made to Gribkowsky at the instigation of Ecclestone.
Gribkowsky, who was in charge of selling German bank BayernLB's 47 percent stake in F1 to CVC, has already been found guilty of corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust and is serving an 8 ½-year prison sentence. Ecclestone acknowledged during Gribkowsky's trial that he made the payment to avoid being reported by the banker to authorities over his tax affairs.
"The payments were a bribe," the judge said. "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."
Constantin said it would appeal the decision.
"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," said lawyer Keith Oliver, head of commercial fraud litigation at Peters and Peters Solicitors.
Ecclestone is also facing trial in Germany. He is charged with bribery and incitement to breach of trust connected with the payment to Gribkowsky. The trial will begin on April 24 and is set to run until Sept. 16.
"Mr. Ecclestone welcomes that he will have the opportunity to defend these bribery allegations properly in proceedings due to begin in Munich in April, when the relevant witnesses can be compelled to attend and be cross-examined by his lawyers. He is confident that he will be acquitted," Ecclestone's camp added.
Bribery convictions can result in prison sentences ranging from three months to 10 years in Germany.
Ecclestone has stepped down as a member of F1's holding company board of directors pending the outcome of the trial but continues to run the series.
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