MUNICH – Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone rejected accusations of bribery as he went on trial Thursday in a case that could threaten his grip on the sport, telling a Munich court that he was blackmailed by a German banker who received a disputed $44 million payment.
Ecclestone said at the beginning of a four-hour personal statement read out in German by his lawyers that he was "grateful" to be able to give his side of the story — though he told judges that he would answer questions from the Munich state court through his lawyers, rather than personally.
The 83-year-old Ecclestone is charged with bribery and incitement to breach of trust, and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The charges involve a $44 million payment to banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is serving an 8½-year sentence for taking the money. Ecclestone appeared in court in a dark three-piece suit and followed the proceedings closely with help from an interpreter whispering into his ear.
Prosecutors allege 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. Gribkowsky was in charge of selling that 47 percent stake in F1 in 2005.
Ecclestone testified during Gribkowsky's trial in 2011 and Gribkowsky is expected to be the main witness during Ecclestone's trial, which is scheduled to last until Sept. 16.
Gribkowsky was found guilty of corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust in a trial led by the same judge who is hearing Ecclestone's case, Peter Noll.
The defense made clear that it will attack Gribkowsky's credibility, and Ecclestone said in his statement that the banker didn't tell the truth.
In Thursday's statement, Ecclestone reiterated testimony he gave at Gribkowsky's trial that he gave the banker the money because he was "blackmailed" and worried Gribkowsky would falsely accuse of him of being in charge of a trust fund set up for the Formula One boss's former wife and their children — possibly incurring a huge British tax bill.
Ecclestone said that "from today's point of view, it was not a rational decision" to pay Gribkowsky.
"I saw my life's work in danger" if Gribkowsky went to the British tax authorities, he said, adding that he wouldn't have been able to pay the resulting bill.
Ecclestone said he had turned over his entire stake in Formula One to his then-wife, Slavica, and their two daughters in 1997 following a series of operations and a health scare that left him worried his wife would face a 40 percent inheritance tax.
He said he ran the day-to-day business of Formula One but hasn't owned any stake in the lucrative series since 1997.
Ecclestone's lawyers also insisted anew that their client is innocent, saying in a written statement that "the alleged bribe has not occurred."
They argued that the indictment is based on statements by Gribkowsky that are "incorrect, misleading and incoherent" and said they would produce new documents at the trial to dispute Gribkowsky's assertions.
Ecclestone said he thought Gribkowsky wanted out of banking and had been interested in founding his own Formula One team.
Ecclestone has stepped down temporarily as a director of F1's holding company pending the outcome of the trial, though he continues to manage the sport's commercial operations on behalf of investment fund CVC Capital Partners, which has a controlling stake in the web of companies which run the commercial side of the sport.
Ecclestone, who built his powerbase in F1 starting in the 1970s, likely would be unable to remain in charge if convicted — even if he avoids a prison sentence.
The trial will continue May 2.
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.