For the past seven months the German media has been speculating that F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone paid £27m ($44m) to the sport's former chairman Gerhard Gribkowsky who was arrested in January for receiving the money.
Last week Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt revealed to the world that Ecclestone did in fact pay Gribkowsky after he threatened to make unfounded allegations about him to the UK tax authorities. You would have thought that this might satisfy the German media somewhat. However, on the basis of this weekend's reports, you'd be wrong.
Six other people were expected to be accused in this affair as Pitpass revealed last week and as Germany's Spiegel magazine subsequently confirmed. The German media has now released the names of these people who they claim were involved with the payment to Gribkowsky. It includes former Renault F1 team principal Flavio Briatore and four lawyers connected to Ecclestone. Given the background to the situation it is hard to see how this is of significance.
To recap, prosecutors claimed that Gribkowsky set up and controlled two Austrian companies that received almost £27m from Ecclestone and an entity of his family trust Bambino. This is nothing new since we know from Ecclestone himself that the money was paid because Gribkowsky threatened to make the false allegation to the UK's tax authorities that he was running Bambino.
"According to the results of investigations this is bribery money, whose payment was disguised through two fake consulting contracts with [companies] in Mauritius and the British Virgin Islands," a statement from prosecutors said. The prosecutors also claimed that to compensate for these payments, Gribkowsky agreed to pay £15.2m to Bambino and £25.2m to Ecclestone on behalf of BayernLB, the bank he worked for which sold in 2006 a 47.2% stake it owned in F1 to the sport's current owner CVC.
It is certainly unusual for people who have paid money to someone who threatened them to then demand compensation for their payment. However, this is exactly what the prosecutors claimed took place. "These payments would not have been asked for were it not for the bribes to be paid to the accused," said prosecutors adding that BayernLB "incurred damages of almost $66.5m through the conduct of the accused."
Let's consider what that means for just one moment. In a nutshell, the prosecutors claim that BayernLB "incurred damages of almost $66.5m" as a result of the payments made to Ecclestone and Bambino. These payments were made five years ago after F1 was sold to CVC and if they led to the bank incurring damages of almost £40.5m ($66.5m) then one wonders why it has taken such a long time to deal with it. Ecclestone says that the payment to Bambino was payback of money it had loaned whereas the payment to him was 5% commission he received for arranging the sale of BayernLB's F1 stake to CVC.
Ecclestone says that BayernLB approved the payment to him so presumably it should be easy for the prosecutors to account for both this and the money paid to Bambino. Likewise, we know from Bernie's own words why he said he paid the money and, given what it entails, it doesn't seem likely that he would have fabricated the idea that he paid it because he was threatened. So one wonders why the prosecutors are concerned with investigating how the money was paid to Gribkowsky. Given that the prosecutors claim BayernLB "incurred damages of almost $66.5m" from the payment by Gribkowsky, it would seem to make most sense if this was their focus.
However, the German reports go into great detail about how the money was paid by Bernie and Bambino to Gribkowsky. According to the reports, Gribkowsky, Ecclestone and one of his lawyers met in the Rib Room restaurant of the Carlton Tower hotel in London's Knightsbridge - it has long been one of the F1 boss' favourite haunts. There it was agreed that Gribkowsky would be paid the money which corresponds with Ecclestone's claims, revealed by Pitpass, that he sought legal advice before making the payment.
The reports claim that Bambino's subsidiary Valper Trading (which incidentally, through its own subsidiary Petara, took over F1's rights holder Formula One Management in February 1996) bought the now-defunct company First Bridge in Mauritius. First Bridge then transferred £12.9m to one of Gribkowsky's Austrian companies.
According to the German reports, Ecclestone himself then paid £13.8m to Gribkowsky. This corresponds with the amount Ecclestone told Sylt earlier this week that he paid. The explanation also corresponds with the F1 boss' comment to Pitpass that Gribkowsky "wanted to be paid so it didn't look like it came from me." The report claims that Ecclestone paid the £13.8m to Briatore and a lawyer in Geneva and it was then paid to Gribkowsky's company in Austria via the British Virgin Islands-based business Lewington Invest. The German reports also claim that premises in Geneva have been searched in connection with the investigation.
Briatore is well acquainted with the British Virgin Islands since his company Formula FB Business is based there so if Ecclestone did indeed ask him to transfer the money to Gribkowsky it would be no great surprise. There is no suggestion at all the Briatore did anything wrong and the German reports state that he is not being accused or investigated by the prosecutors. Indeed, knowing how Bernie paid Gribkowsky does not seem to even be relevant. If, as the prosecutors say, BayernLB "incurred damages of almost $66.5m" from the payment by Gribkowsky to Bernie and Bambino then one would expect this to be the most crucial focus of the investigation.