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Exclusive: £409m lawsuit against Ecclestone and CVC revealed

NEWS STORY
20/11/2012

CVC, the private equity firm which is the largest shareholder in Formula One, has been dragged into the ongoing scandal surrounding Gerhard Gribkowsky, former chairman of the sport. Gribkowsky was convicted in June for receiving an alleged bribe of £27.5m from F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone and his family trust in return for steering the sale of the sport to CVC in 2006. CVC has always denied that it had anything to do with improper payments to Gribkowsky and it has not been charged with any wrongdoing. However, this has not stopped it from being on the receiving end of a £409m lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court connected to its takeover of F1.

Details of the lawsuit and Ecclestone's response have been revealed today in the CityAM newspaper by Christian Sylt. Pitpass is the first media outlet worldwide to offer its readers a copy of the lawsuit which can be found here (pdf). It makes for fascinating reading.

On Friday, whilst F1's teams were revving up for action in Texas, private equity firm Bluewaters Communications Holdings was filing the lawsuit against Ecclestone and CVC in New York. It would probably have overshadowed proceedings in Texas had news got out before the Grand Prix took place on Sunday.

The origins of the lawsuit stretch way back to 2005 when F1 was 25% owned by Ecclestone's family trust Bambino with the remaining 75% in the hands of three banks which took over their shares after previous owner, German media company Kirch, defaulted on a loan they gave to it. The banks were JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers and German state-owned lender BayernLB which was F1's biggest single shareholder with 47.2% of the sport in its hands. All three of them wanted to sell up because they hadn't got the shares voluntarily and simply wanted the money back from the loan they had given.

Eagle-eyed Pitpass readers may remember the name Bluewaters as we revealed in October last year that it had made an offer to buy the three banks' shares in 2005 though it was lower than the price paid by CVC. Bluewaters' lawsuit confirms this in great detail.

It states that Bluewaters' bid was itself backed by two New York private equity firms - Apollo and King Street, which happen to be clients of Sylt's Formula Money F1 consultancy and industry data business. Bluewaters secured £314m ($500m) from each of them and its lawsuit states that "on November 15, 2005, Bluewaters submitted a written offer to BayernLB offering to purchase the Bank Group's shares of Speed Investments for one billion dollars." It needs to be stressed that this payment was only offered for the shares owned by the three banks and not for F1 itself as wrongly reported elsewhere.

As revealed last October, this £628m offered by Bluewaters was significantly less than the £527.1m ($839m) paid by CVC for BayernLB's stake as well as the further £131.9m ($210m) and £131.5m ($209.25m) it paid for the shares owned by JP Morgan and Lehman Brothers respectively. In total CVC paid £162.5m more than Bluewaters offered but that is not the end of the story.

The lawsuit reveals that the letter accompanying Bluewaters' written offer stated that "Bluewater is prepared to pay 10 percent more in cash consideration or other forms of equally valued securities above any genuine bona-fide offer put forward by any other accredited buyer." In a nutshell, Bluewaters is alleging that it would have outbid CVC and therefore BayernLB had an obligation to sell to it, particularly since it is a state-owned bank.

Bluewaters says that although it was prepared to pay more than any other bidder, it "received no response from BayernLB." Its lawsuit claims that Ecclestone paid a bribe to BayernLB to ensure that it sold F1 to CVC since it had committed to retaining him as the sport's chief executive.

In contrast, Bluewaters says it gave "no commitment to him in that regard." Indeed, according to the lawsuit, Ecclestone told Bluewaters' founder John Gregg in a telephone conversation that Apollo had a reputation of being "tough money." Gregg took this as an admission that Ecclestone was concerned about Apollo controlling F1.

According to the lawsuit, after CVC had been announced as F1's new owner, Gregg telephoned members of BayernLB's board of directors to reiterate that he would beat any accredited buyer's offer by 10%. However, allegedly, BayernLB's board members did not return Gregg's calls.

Gribkowsky got his position as F1's chairman through also being chief risk officer for BayernLB. This put him in charge of the sale of F1 and after it was sold to CVC he became a very rich man. In the two years following the sale Ecclestone and Bambino paid a total of £27.5m to Gribkowsky which he did not tell BayernLB about and did not declare to the tax authority in Germany where he is resident. The payment was discovered by German media late in 2010 and Gribkowsky was arrested soon after that on suspicion of receiving a bribe, breach of trust and tax evasion.

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