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Jailed banker gets more coverage in Germany

NEWS STORY
05/02/2011

There is lots of F1-related news in Germany at the moment. Williams recently made the surprise decision to float a portion of its shares on the Frankfurt stock exchange and, separately, last month Gerhard Gribkowsky, the former chairman of F1's holding company SLEC, was put in prison in Munich. In 2006 and 2007 Gribkowsky received a total of $50m which prosecutors in Munich have claimed was a bribe for undervaluing a stake in SLEC when it was sold to the company's current majority owner the finance firm CVC. The German press is awash with coverage of this and Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt is on hand to analyse the reports.

To understand the context of the charges against Gribkowsky we need to cast our minds back to 2001. Gribkowsky was then the chief risk officer of Munich-based bank BayernLB which, along with Lehman Brothers and JP Morgan, had lent $1.6bn ($1,570.2m to be precise) to the German media company Kirch. As the following legal document shows, Bayern lent Kirch $987.5m with $300m and $282.7m coming from Lehman and JP Morgan respectively.

The money was used by Kirch to buy a 63.9% stake in SLEC from EM.TV, another German media firm. EM.TV retained an 11.1% stake in SLEC with the remaining 25% in the hands of Bambino Holdings, the Jersey-based company ultimately owned by F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone's family trust.

In 2002 Kirch got into financial difficulties and it became clear that it would not be able to repay the loan to the three banks. As a result, the banks took over Kirch's stake in SLEC as security for the loan they had given it. To solidify their position the banks also took over EM.TV's 11.1% share in SLEC giving them a total stake of 75%. This stake was held in a company called Speed Investments with 62.9% of it owned by Bayern, 19.1% by Lehman and 18% by JP Morgan reflecting the amounts they had lent to Kirch.

However, although they owned the majority of SLEC the banks found that they did not have board control of its most important subsidiaries including Formula One Administration (FOA), which directly owns F1's lucrative commercial rights. After extremely bitter legal action in 2004 and 2005 Speed won board control and in 2006 it sold its shares to CVC's investment vehicle Alpha Prema. According to the 2006 Alpha Prema UK accounts (pdf file) "the company acquired the entire share capital of Speed Investments limited for $1,232m." Gribkowsky stayed on board as a director of F1's new holding company Delta Topco.

As Bayern's representative Gribkowsky was tasked with getting the highest price for the bank's SLEC stake but according to the Munich prosecutors he did not do this. "The stake had been sold without being properly evaluated," says Barbara Stockinger, spokeswoman for the prosecutors, adding that "the suspect in turn received $50m in payments disguised via two consultancy agreements." It has been widely reported that these consultancy contracts were related to F1.

In December last year German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung discovered that Gribkowsky had received the $50m and it has since printed claims that the payment came from Ecclestone in return for Bayern's SLEC stake being undervalued. Sylt simply does not believe this.

Since Ecclestone was not the buyer of the shares he had nothing to gain by them being undervalued and he has said that neither he nor the Formula One Group "are involved in any other payments to Dr. Gribkowsky or anyone close to him, nor did they know about such payments," except for his $50,000 salary as a Delta Topco board member. Likewise, CVC has said that it "it has no knowledge of, nor any involvement in, any payment to Mr Gribkowsky or anyone connected with him in relation to CVC's acquisition of Formula One." However, it hasn't stopped the Suddeutsche Zeitung digging further.

Two weeks ago, the newspaper claimed that Gribkowsky's business wrote a letter to Ecclestone on 14 December 2007 saying that $2,229,139 of the payment to him was short. Of course this provides no proof at all that Ecclestone paid money for the shares to be undervalued. Now, in today's edition, Suddeutsche Zeitung claims that six witnesses who worked with Gribkowsky's business have unanimously testified that the money was a fee from Ecclestone. According to the newspaper Gribkowsky received the fees for advising Ecclestone on financial matters and being a liaison to the German car industry. Again, Sylt simply does not believe this.

The $50m which Gribkowsky received is equivalent to eight times Ecclestone's annual salary so clearly, whatever he received this for, it must have been very very important to put it mildly. What kinds of services could Gribkowsky have provided? Gribkowsky is a former lawyer and banker but Ecclestone has been surrounded by them for years. On the legal front there's Luc Argand a Swiss lawyer who, aged just 22 years old, drew up a management contract between Ecclestone and the late F1 world champion Jochen Rindt in 1970. He also introduced Ecclestone to Stephen Mullens, another lawyer who is now on the board of Formula One Management alongside yet another lawyer Sacha Woodward-Hill who also owns 0.8% of Delta Topco.

On the financial front the outcome is the same. Bearing in mind that Ecclestone himself is renowned for his business brain, it is simply not believable that he would have paid Gribkowsky such a large sum as $50m for financial advice. No court in the land is going to believe that Gribkowsky could have offered financial advice worth $50m which Ecclestone couldn't get elsewhere cheaper. It is simply unbelievable but if we were to pretend for one moment that it is true the first question which would spring to mind is what financial services could Gribkowsky have offered to justify a $50m payment? It is a pretty darn difficult one to answer.

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