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2013-10-30 07:48

BERNIE ECCLESTONE: His Formula 1 empire is under threat in the courts of Europe. Image: AFP


LONDON, England - Formula 1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has been accused in court here of "a corrupt bargain" that cost a German media firm millions. It's one of several legal challenges that threaten his control of Formula 1.

Constantin Medien is seeking more than $100-million (a billion rands) in damages in court in the UK from Ecclestone, arguing that he and three other defendants deliberately undervalued F1 when private equity fund CVC Capital Partners bought into the business in 2005.

Medien, a sports-focused media group, had an interest in the sale of German bank BayernLB's stake in F1 to CVC and Constantin says it lost out as a result of the under-valuation.


The legal fall-out from the sale has already seen former BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky jailed for eight-and-a-half years for corruption and a German court will decide in 2014 whether Ecclestone himself should stand trial for bribery. In addition, the Prosecutor's Office in Geneva, Switzerland, said on Oct 29 it had received a denunciation from Constantin Medien concerning the disputed transaction and had launched a criminal investigation.

Ecclestone denies any wrongdoing but if the various legal battles were to go against him his control of a sport that he turned into a global money-spinner could be in jeopardy. The 83-year-old is scheduled to appear as a witness in the London High Court in the week beginning Nov 4 2013.

After months of pre-trial arguments, the civil trial began on October 29, Philip Marshall, lead counsel for Constantin Medien, outlining his client's case. Referring to the German indictment against Ecclestone, Marshall said it revealed that "a corrupt bargain was made between Gribkowsky... and Ecclestone".

"The purpose of the bargain," Marshall said, "was to facilitate a sale of the Formula One Group to a purchaser chosen by Ecclestone in return for remuneration (for Gribkowsky) and a position in Formula One going forward (for Ecclestone)".


Judge Guy Newey told Marshall he would not allow him to rely on the German indictment as evidence and Constantin Medien would have to prove its case for damages on the evidence before the London court.

The other three defendants are Ecclestone's former lawyer Stephen Mullins, the Ecclestone family's Bambino Holdings and Gribkowsky, who is mounting no formal legal defence in the case.

Marshall said Ecclestone arranged with Gribkowsky for BayernLB to sell its 47% stake in Formula 1 to CVC at a knock-down price of $830-million because he stood to gain both financially and by keeping his position at the helm of the sport.

"These arrangements effectively dealt with a serious threat from BayernLB to Ecclestone's control of the Formula One Group," he said.

Ecclestone does not deny making payments of $44-million to Gribkowsky but says he was the victim of extortion after the German banker threatened to make false claims over his tax affairs.


Marshall said that the combined benefit to Ecclestone and Bambino Holdings of the sale was over $1-billion. Based on what the Ecclestone family got out of the transaction, the total valuation of Formula One should have stood at between $3.09 and $3.34-billion, in stark contrast to a valuation just in excess of $2-billion used by CVC at the time.

"We see the transaction as being significantly weighted for the benefit of Ecclestone and Bambino and significantly to the detriment of BayernLB and those who had an interest (in the sale of its stake)," he told the court.

Marshall will completes his opening submissions on Wednesday (Oct 30), lawyers for Ecclestone and the other defendants will give their responses. The trial is scheduled to last six weeks.

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