F1 chief says he rejected chance to settle case

Bernie Ecclestone defiant over UK civil action as $44m bribery trial continues in Germany

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The Independent Online

The Formula One chief executive, Bernie Ecclestone, claims he was offered the chance to settle a UK lawsuit related to an alleged $44m (£27m) bribe at the heart of Germany's biggest post-war corruption case.

In both cases, Mr Ecclestone is claimed to have paid the money to Gerhard Gribkowsky, the former chief risk officer of the German bank BayernLB. In the German case he has not been charged, whereas in the UK case he is a defending party.

In both cases, it is alleged that this payment ensured that Mr Ecclestone retained control of F1 after it was sold in 2006 to current owner, the private equity firm CVC. BayernLB sold a 47.2 per cent stake in F1 to CVC for $839m.

That it was sold for less than $1bn triggered a UK civil action against Mr Ecclestone and Mr Gribkowsky by the then-F1 part-owner, the media group Constantin Medien. Constantin's agreement with BayernLB was that it would receive 10 per cent of anything over $1bn.

Mr Ecclestone said that the UK lawsuit is driven by the Constantin board member and shareholder Dieter Hahn. He added that Mr Hahn approached him with a settlement barely three months after the lawsuit was filed in July.

"Dieter Hahn just wants to shake down, to settle before it gets to court. He would like to settle. He would like somebody to pay him," says Mr Ecclestone.

He adds that the settlement approach has been rebuffed. "Dieter Hahn has started so now let's get on with it," he said. "I would be happy to see that case go to court. I 100 per cent think it will go to court. We couldn't stop it if we wanted to. We could sue him if he withdrew."

Mr Ecclestone also says that the greatest danger to him from the German proceedings will be if Mr Gribkowsky is found guilty of receiving a bribe. "If Gribkowsky is found to have received a bribe, then Hahn has got leverage," he says.

Mr Ecclestone says he is confident he will win the UK case. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.

Evidence given to the German court by several executives from BayernLB seems to back parts of Mr Ecclestone's argument. Kurt Faltlhauser, who headed the lender's administrative board for three years to July 2005, said: "The price we were offered by CVC was surprisingly high and it came as a great relief."

A former BayernLB management board member, Dieter Burgmer, added: "BayernLB's management board regarded the net proceeds from the sale of the Formula One stake to CVC as very attractive."

"All the people from Bayern said the price was bloody good," said Mr Ecclestone. "They were very happy with the price. Five other people offered a hell of a lot less."

German prosecutors claim that Mr Gribkowsky demanded $50m from Mr Ecclestone in return for his agreement to sell to CVC. Mr Ecclestone denies this, but admits to paying Mr Gribkowsky. He says he did this to stop Mr Gribkowsky reporting false allegations about his tax affairs to HM Revenue & Customs. Taking the stand in Munich Mr Ecclestone said: "I paid him to keep calm and not to do silly things."

Mr Gribkowsky has been charged in Germany with bribery, breach of trust and tax evasion. Constantin and its lawyer, Keith Oliver of Peters & Peters, declined to comment.