Bernie Ecclestone wins damages case after F1 deal bribe

Bernie Ecclestone: "If I was unreliable... I'm lucky to be as successful as we have been"

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A High Court judge has rejected an £85m damages claim against Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone but said he did pay a bribe over a sale of F1 shares.

Mr Justice Newey found Mr Ecclestone had made a "corrupt" deal. And he had been not "reliable or truthful" during the case in London, the judge added.

But he said there had been no financial loss to German media group Constantin Medien. It said it would appeal.

Mr Ecclestone, 83, said he was "relieved" at the ruling.

Start Quote

I find it impossible to regard him as a reliable or truthful witness”

End Quote Mr Justice Newey High Court

Mr Ecclestone is the chief executive of F1, and has ruled the sport for almost four decades.

Constantin Medien had an interest in the 2006 sale of a stake in F1, belonging to the German bank Bayern LB (BLB) and bought by private equity group CVC Capital Partners.

Lawyers for Constantin Medien claimed that the sale was agreed "without the normal and proper process" and for an undervalued price, and were seeking £85m (103m euros) in compensation.

'Technical grounds'

But Mr Justice Newey, delivering on Thursday the judgement reserved at the end of the two-month case last December, said the damages claim failed because it had been "no part" of Mr Ecclestone's purpose for shares to be sold at an "undervalue".

"No loss to Constantin has been shown to have been caused by the corrupt arrangement," the judge said. "That fact is fatal to the claim."

Analysis

Success for Mr Ecclestone, but it's a qualified one as the judge also said in conclusion that he did feel the 83-year-old had indeed paid a bribe, and he didn't believe the Formula 1 chief's version of events, describing him as an "unreliable witness".

The fact that this lawsuit has been dismissed will still be a relief to the "Formula 1 ruler", as he's been described - a man who has been in charge for 40 years or so.

The decision was seen as one that could have effectively brought about the end of one of the most powerful tenures in the history of motorsport - or sport generally.

Mr Ecclestone always denied any wrongdoing, saying he was the victim of blackmail and that it wasn't bribery.

The question now is whether this will have an impact on a criminal case in Germany, where Mr Ecclestone has to stand trial on bribery charges in April. If he were to be found guilty in that case, he could face a prison sentence.

But he found that Mr Ecclestone had made payments to bribe German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to facilitate the sale to a buyer chosen by him.

Mr Ecclestone has admitted paying Gribkowsky, but denied bribery and claimed he was effectively the victim of blackmail.

Giving evidence last December, Mr Ecclestone said the damages claim "lacks any merit".

In written findings, Mr Justice Newey said: "The payments were a bribe. They were made because Mr Ecclestone had entered into a corrupt agreement with Dr Gribkowsky on May 2005 under which Dr Gribkowsky was to be rewarded for facilitating the sale of BLB's shares in the F1 Group to a buyer acceptable to Mr Ecclestone.

"Mr Ecclestone's aim was to be rid of the banks. He was strongly averse to their involvement in the F1 Group and was keen that their shares should be transferred to someone more congenial to him."

The judge also said: "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."

BBC chief sports correspondent Dan Roan said: "This will be a bitter-sweet victory for Bernie Ecclestone - his reputation called into question, his integrity called into question too by a High Court judge."

The Formula 1 boss would feel "relief" that the judgement had been in his favour, but "the judge's remarks will call into question his leadership of the sport", our correspondent said.

Criminal trial

Following the ruling, a statement on behalf of Mr Ecclestone said he was "delighted that this thoroughly unmeritorious claim has been dismissed".

The judge's finding that Mr Ecclestone had paid a bribe was, it added, "not underpinned by reliable evidence" because the source of the allegation - Gribkowsky - had not given evidence in the case.

"As such, the judge's opinion is expressed in the light of hearing only partial evidence that has not been properly tested," the statement said.

Constantin Medien's lawyer Keith Oliver said: "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."

Mr Ecclestone faces a criminal trial in Germany in April over the payments to Gribkowsky.

He has stood down as a director of F1 ahead of the criminal trial, but continues to run the sport on a day-to-day basis.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Ecclestone said he was "relieved" he will not have to pay "an awful lot of money to somebody I should not have had to pay".

Asked about the judge's verdict that he had not been "reliable or truthful" during the case, he said: "Let's assume I am a liar and let's assume I am unreliable.

"I've run the sport for the last 30-odd years and nothing has changed. So if I was unreliable, and whatever, I have been lucky to have been as successful as we have been."

A separate statement said Mr Ecclestone "welcomes that he will have the opportunity to defend these bribery allegations".

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