Frankly, I’m a bit disappointed that I didn’t think of this myself, as an April fools’ joke to play on you all. On 5 August 2014 a German court agreed to end the bribery trial of everyone’s favourite octogenarian, Warhol-alike, Formula One mogul Bernie Ecclestone in exchange for a payment from him of US$100 million [about £60 million]. Ecclestone went on trial in Munich in April 2014, charged with bribing a German banker with $44 million eight years ago to ensure that a stake in F1 that had been put up for sale by his bank, BayernLB, would be bought by a company that Bernie favoured, so that he would remain in charge of the sport. The banker concerned, Gerhard Gribkowsky, was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison in 2012 for accepting bribes – and call me simplistic, but if a bribe is proved to have been accepted, isn’t it also proved to have been paid?
But much to everyone’s surprise, it turns out that German law (specifically paragraph 153a of the German legal code) provides for some criminal cases to be settled with smaller punishments, such as fines, if conditions are “appropriate for resolving the public interest in a prosecution”. And to no-one’s surprise, wealthy defendants have used this clause to buy their way out of trials. Ecclestone’s settlement, however, is perhaps the highest ever; $99 million goes to the German treasury and a further million to a German children’s hospice charity. The case is then “abandoned”, and Ecclestone is found neither guilty nor innocent. Apparently, in considering whether such a settlement was appropriate, the court took into account Ecclestone’s age (he’s 83) and his financial situation. His lawyer, Sven Thomas, defended the settlement negotiations, saying his client had been suffering from an “extremely burdensome procedure”. Heaven forbid that someone accused of a serious crime should be inconvenienced by the irritation of a trial. It seems that anyone who finds themselves facing the German courts needs to have two things: lawyers who can make your case so complicated that it becomes unpalatable, and deep pockets.
On something of a roll, and obviously under the – understandable – impression that money buys you anything, Ecclestone has since offered BayernLB 25 million euros to settle their claim against him that he collected commissions, and undervalued their stake in F1, which they sold in 2005. The bank has maintained what one might call a dignified (or perhaps horrified) silence, and the offer has expired.