MUNICH Germany (Reuters) - German prosecutors cast doubt on assertions by Bernie Ecclestone that he had been the victim of extortion when the Formula One boss returned to court on Friday in a bribery trial where he faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The 83-year-old Briton is accused of bribing now-jailed banker Gerhard Gribkowsky by channeling $44 million to him in return for smoothing the sale of a stake in Formula One to the private equity firm CVC eight years ago.
They say that Ecclestone favored CVC as the new owner because it was committed to keeping him on as chief executive of a business he had built into a global money spinner over the previous three decades.
Ecclestone admits making multi-million dollar payments to Gribkowsky but says this was to silence the German who he said was threatening to make false claims about his tax status that could have jeopardized his fortune.
“It was never really clear what form this threat could have taken,” said Martin Bauer, a public prosecutor who took evidence from Ecclestone after the arrest of Gribkowsky in 2011.
Bauer said Ecclestone had spoken merely of Gribkowsky being able to make things uncomfortable for him without specifying how. Ecclestone, who denied wrongdoing when he went on trial last week, followed Friday’s proceedings through an interpreter.
Gribkowsky was the former chief risk officer at state-owned BayernLB which owned a 47 percent stake in Formula One before the sale to CVC in 2006.
Ecclestone’s legal team argued on Friday that the Briton should not have been accused of bribing a public official - a specific crime that carries a heavy penalty under German law.
“When you are standing by the side of a racetrack in Shanghai, you are not working as a civil servant any more,” said lawyer Sven Thomas, referring to the way Gribkowsky had become involved in the running of Formula One.
Bribery as part of a business transaction has a narrower definition under German law, something that could increase the chances of an acquittal.
The former used-car salesman, who is fighting to save his job and reputation, is required to attend every session in a case that will be heard once or twice a week to fit around his Formula One commitments and is set to run until mid-September.
CVC, the largest shareholder in Formula One, has said it will dismiss Ecclestone if he is found guilty.
Despite his age, Ecclestone attends almost every grand prix race and remains central to the sport’s commercial success. He has always dismissed talk of retirement, and there is no obvious replacement when he does finally quit or is forced out.
Gribkowsky was jailed for 8-1/2 years in 2012 for tax evasion and corruption in relation to payments from Ecclestone. The German is expected to give evidence when the court sits next Friday.
Writing by Keith Weir, editing by Mark Heinrich