By NORRIS MCDONALD/Editor, Toronto Star Wheels, wheels.ca
The latest story making the rounds about Bernie Ecclestone being in trouble with authorities in Germany may turn out to be true, or not. My guess is on the "or not."
As was the case with the U.S. gangster Al Capone, who was only able to be sent to jail on tax evasion charges, the German government these days is busy nailing a whole bunch of their national swindlers and con artists the only way they can - on tax charges.
You will all recall Karlheinz Schreiber, a nasty fellow who charmed a whole bunch of prominent, yet gullible, Canadians, including a former prime minister, to do some questionable work on his behalf. For cash.
The latest to make the headlines is Gerhard Gribkowski, a financier who’s held various senior positions with a number of German banks over the years and who's been involved with Ecclestone, in one manner or another, for more than a decade.
Gribkowski copped a deal over charges that he’d failed to pay tax on income received recently as the result of one of the many sales of a piece of Formula One. He initially said it was bonus money but then he changed his tune and said he’d been bribed by Ecclestone.
Ecclestone appeared at this man’s trial and testified that he’d paid Gribkowski the money - more than $40 million - but insisted that it was, in fact, hush money because the German had threatened to make trouble for him by providing the British tax people with information about the administration of trusts he’d set up for his ex-wife Slavika and the two daughters he’d had with her (there’s a third from a previous union).
The latest story (here’s the link) suggests that Bernie is toast and will be arrested, extradited, charged and jailed for a minimum of 10 years. This is an opinion put forth by a lawyer to a newspaper in Germany. It is not an opinion shared, as yet, by anyone with legal authority in Germany.
Now, the fact that Bernie Ecclestone has been playing a shell game with anyone with financial authority for eons is a given. Nobody knows where the little ball is and if anybody - fan, F1 participant, journalist, police officer, accountant or finance minister – thinks they can guess where it is, they’re welcome to try but they are going to lose, guaranteed.
Ecclestone first ran into Gribkowski in 1999 or 2000 when the European Commission determined that certain sweetheart deals cooked up between FIA president Max Mosley and Ecclestone were in violation of competition laws.
These deals had to do with cash for TV rights and payments from circuits for F1 races that went to Ecclestone and were distributed to the teams after he took a hefty cut off the top for himself.
It was because of the EU commission ruling that Ecclestone first tried to unload his share of the sport.
The first serious investor to show interest was the director of a huge U.K. private equity company – an F1 fan, naturally, whose name doesn't matter. He threw a party in which he invited a bunch of other fans (the Bronfmans of Montreal were represented; a director of Lehman Brothers was present as were high-profile individuals like Mansour Ojjeh of TAG Heuer and Tommy Hilfiger) but in the end it was Leo Kirch, a German TV tycoon, who bit.
It’s complicated – trust me, everything having to do with Ecclestone is complicated and there were some moves and counter moves along the way – but Kirch eventually bought 50 per cent of F1. To get the money, more than a billion dollars, he had to borrow it from three German banks and one of them was Bayerische Landesbank whose loans officer was one Gerhard Gribkowski.
When Kirch eventually defaulted, Gribkowski engineered Bayerische Landesbank into the top position among all creditors and, after settling with the others, wound up as 50 per cent owner of Formula One.
Bernie Ecclestone and Gerhard Gribkowski have been trying to outwit each other – and others – ever since. Through all the various sales of F1 and F1-related properties - and there have been several, all involving European banks and investment houses - Ecclestone and Gribkowski have been like Siamese twins.
Gribkowski’s claim that he was bribed by Ecclestone is laughable. For once, Bernie’s defence that he was forced to pay his sometimes-partner hush money is much more believable because if anybody knows the F1 czar’s secrets, it’s Gribkowski.
In the end, despite what's reported by the German newspaper Bild, it's highly unlikely that Ecclestone will be charged in Germany because to charge someone with a crime, there has to be a reasonable expectation of conviction and when it comes to Bernie Ecclestone and high finance, well . . .
One last thing: anything that is reported about Bernie Ecclestone by the tabloid Bild must be taken with a grain of salt. Bernie sued that newspaper, successfully, years ago over the publishing of naughty photos of his then-wife Slavika.
It cost that paper millions. Since then, they've rarely turned down an opportunity to try to stick it to him.
As is the case with any juicy story, there are always many sides. These have been just a few of them.
HOT LAPS: Here’s the story behind Tuesday’s announcement that Sprint Cup champion and Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth won’t be back at Roush-Fenway Racing in 2013. I suspect Kenseth doesn’t have a deal with anybody for next year. But he knew Roush-Fenway wouldn’t be able to afford him after this year (his Jack Roush-owned car is largely unsponsored) and so why wait to let other car owners and teams know you’re going to be available? . . . All that chatter about the IZOD sponsorship of the IndyCar championship being dependent on there being 16 races was just that: chatter. There will only be 15 IndyCar Series races this year after China was cancelled and a statement by IZOD said that was fine. It reminds me of the concern about Champ Car needing 18 cars "for contractual purposes." They sometimes only had 17 or even 16 cars on track and the world didn’t come to an end then, either. . . .