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Formula One's Ecclestone charged in German bribe case

F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone looks out of his motor home after the second practice for the German F1 Grand Prix at the Nuerburgri
F1 commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone looks out of his motor home after the second practice for the German F1 Grand Prix at the Nuerburgri

By Irene Preisinger

MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Formula One Chief Executive Bernie Ecclestone has been charged with bribing a German banker to smooth the sale of a stake in the motor racing business to private equity firm CVC eight years ago.

Ecclestone, 82, has denied wrongdoing and will fight to clear his name. The case could mean a further delay to tentative plans to float Formula One on the stock market in Singapore and will revive speculation about an eventual successor to the man who turned the sport into a major global business.

An indictment has been translated into English and sent to Ecclestone's German lawyers, charging him with bribery and breach of trust, a Munich court spokesman said.

The case centers upon a $44 million payment to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky in 2005 when BayernLB was selling a 48 percent stake in Formula One to CVC, a private equity investor that Ecclestone was keen to see as a new shareholder.

Gribkowsky, BayernLB's former chief risk officer, was jailed last year for more than eight years for tax evasion and bribery after taking the payment from Ecclestone and failing to declare it to German tax authorities.

Ecclestone has denied that the payments to Gribkowsky amounted to bribes. Instead, he told a Munich court in November 2011 that he paid Gribkowsky to "keep him quiet" after the German put him under pressure over his tax affairs.

Ecclestone's lawyers said they would respond to the charges shortly.

"The main topic of the response will be the changing 'confessions' of Mr. Gribkowsky," Duesseldorf-based law firm Thomas Deckers Wehnert Elsner said in an e-mailed statement.

The defense has until mid-August to submit its response. A decision about whether to proceed with a trial is not expected before mid-September, the court spokesman said.

Ecclestone remains central to the motor racing business he has been involved with for decades and the diminutive chief is a familiar figure at its races. He has always said he has no plans to retire and there is no obvious successor in place.

BayernLB had ended up with the Formula One stake following the bankruptcy of the media empire of Leo Kirch and the bank assigned Gribkowsky with the task of hiving it off.

BayernLB is seeking $400 million in damages from Ecclestone, claiming that the stake was not sold for full value.

CVC acquired a 63 percent stake in Formula One, but has since whittled that down to around 35 percent in a series of deals. U.S. investment groups BlackRock and Waddell & Reed, as well as Norway's Norges Bank Investment Management have bought into the business over the past year.

CVC said in a statement that the board of Delta Topco Limited (Formula One Group) had noted the developments in Munich and would continue to monitor the situation.

(Additional reporting by Joern Poltz in Munich and Alan Baldwin; writing by Maria Sheahan and Keith Weir; editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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