MUNICH (AP) — Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone rejected accusations of bribery as he went on trial Thursday in a case that could threaten his grip on the sport, telling a Munich court that he was blackmailed by a German banker who received a disputed $44 million payment.
Ecclestone said at the beginning of a four-hour personal statement read out in German by his lawyers that he was "grateful" to be able to give his side of the story — though he told judges that he would answer questions from the Munich state court through his lawyers, rather than personally.
The 83-year-old Ecclestone is charged with bribery and incitement to breach of trust, and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. The charges involve a $44 million payment to banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, who is serving an 8½-year sentence for taking the money. Ecclestone appeared in court in a dark three-piece suit and followed the proceedings closely with help from an interpreter whispering into his ear.
Prosecutors allege the payment was meant to facilitate the sale of Munich-based bank Bayern LB's stake in Formula One to a buyer of Ecclestone's liking. Gribkowsky was in charge of selling that 47 percent stake in F1 in 2005.
Ecclestone testified during Gribkowsky's trial in 2011 and Gribkowsky is expected to be the main witness during Ecclestone's trial, which is scheduled to last until Sept. 16.
Gribkowsky was found guilty of corruption, tax evasion and breach of trust in a trial led by the same judge who is hearing Ecclestone's case, Peter Noll.
The defense made clear that it will attack Gribkowsky's credibility, and Ecclestone said in his statement that the banker didn't tell the truth.
In Thursday's statement, Ecclestone reiterated testimony he gave at Gribkowsky's trial that he gave the banker the money because he was "blackmailed" and worried Gribkowsky would falsely accuse of him of being in charge of a trust fund set up for the Formula One boss's former wife and their children — possibly incurring a huge British tax bill.