We are gradually edging towards resolution of one of the biggest behind the scenes scandals in the history of Formula One and now have a good idea of when it will come to a close.
The scandal surrounds the sport's former chairman Gerhard Gribkowsky who was arrested in January under suspicion of receiving £27m for allegedly undervaluing F1 when it was sold to current owner, the private equity firm CVC, in 2006. Months of rumours and speculation about why he really received the money should come to an end soon as the German media is reporting that Gribkowsky will finally be brought to trial at the end of October.
Regular Pitpass readers will be well aware of all the details since the case has been covered extensively by business editor Christian Sylt. To give a quick recap, Gribkowsky was the former risk manager for German bank BayernLB which, together with American banks JP Morgan and Lehman Brothers, owned a 75% stake in F1's parent company SLEC. The banks received a total of $1.2bn from CVC for their shares and all was well until late last year when it came to light that Gribkowsky had received £27m during his time at BayernLB and he hadn't declared the money to his employer. Worse still, the money had been paid into an account in his name in Austria where less tax needed to be paid on it than would have been due in Germany where he lived.
Gribkowsky told prosecutors that the money came from F1's boss Bernie Ecclestone and was paid for consultancy work he had done. The authorities were having none of it and instead concluded that the money must have been paid in connection with BayernLB's sale of F1. Putting two and two together they claimed that Gribkowsky had been paid a bribe in order to undervalue F1 when it was sold to CVC. They then charged him with bribery, tax evasion (due to the money being paid into Austria rather than Germany) and breach of trust because his employer was unaware of the sizeable payment to him. Two of these charges seem likely to be successful and one looks doomed to failure.
In July, Ecclestone exclusively told Pitpass that he had indeed paid Gribkowsky but he had done this because the German had threatened that he would otherwise report unfounded allegations about his tax affairs to the Inland Revenue. He stressed that the money was not paid as a bribe to undervalue F1 and indeed it was not paid in connection with the sale of the sport at all. This explains why Ecclestone will be one of around 40 witnesses at next month's trial. One of Ecclestone's close associates reportedly told the prosecutors that Gribkowsky wanted to take over as F1's boss and, if true, it would stress that the relationship between the two of them was hardly friendly.
Ecclestone's view that no bribe was paid in connection with the sale of F1 has been corroborated by quotes which BayernLB's chief financial officer Stephan Winkelmeier gave to the Financial Times in Germany last month. Winkelmeier confirmed that internal and external investigations have revealed that F1 was sold to CVC for "a price that was in line with expectations." This destroys the notion of the sport being undervalued but Winkelmeier didn't stop there. He added that the investigations "have shown that the sale was carried out properly, in accordance with the bank's regulations." This rules out the possibility of a bribe being paid in connection with the sale of F1 at all. Accordingly, it seems like the bribery charge holds no water.
Of course, a bribe could have been paid for something completely unconnected to the sale of the sport but there is zero evidence for this, nor any suggestion what it could be. More to the point, bribery is a criminal offence so if Gribkowsky really was bribed, the authorities would presumably have to charge the person who they believe paid the bribe. They have not done this and that in itself may say a great deal.
Even if Winkelmeier's claims had never been published, it would seem that Gribkowsky has an easy defence to the bribery charge. His lawyer could presumably say that for the authorities to prosecute him with bribery they must have a good idea that he received a bribe and they must therefore know who paid it. The very fact that they have not charged anyone with paying a bribe could suggest that they don't know who it is or that no bribe was paid. Until either of these points are proved it would seem to be very difficult to successfully prosecute Gribkowsky with bribery.
The two other charges seem a lot easier to fathom. If Gribkowsky received the money for threatening to make false allegations about Ecclestone's tax affairs this is an opportunity which only presented itself due to the German's work. His contact with Ecclestone came as a result of BayernLB taking over the shares in F1 so if Gribkowsky received money from him it makes sense that he should have declared it to the bank. Accordingly, it is tough to see how Gribkowsky could avoid the charge of breach of trust.
Likewise, it is hard to see how he could avoid the charge of tax evasion. As a resident of Germany Gribkowsky should have paid the money into an account there or declared the money to the tax authorities in the country. Instead, it was paid into an account in Austria where significantly less tax needed to be paid on it.
Bizarrely, Gribkowsky's initials form the name of one of the companies of the group which the money was paid to so he was not trying to hide from it. Given that Gribkowsky is a former lawyer and a former banker it is hard to believe that he could have committed such seemingly blatant tax evasion.