The Formula One chief, Bernie Ecclestone, has declared himself "a bit of an idiot" for paying a £60m settlement to bring an end to his bribery trial.
The president and chief executive of Formula One agreed with German prosecutors on Tuesday to pay the record sum to end his trial, a district court in Munich confirmed. The defence has denied accusations that he had bought his freedom.
The Formula One boss went on trial in Munich in April over allegations that he bribed a former German banker as part of the sale of a major stake in the motor sport business eight years ago.
Although slightly lighter in the pocket, given Ecclestone’s worth is estimated at about £3bn-£4bn, he was nonetheless relieved that he could put this period of his life finally behind him.
Ecclestone, 83, told PA: “The bottom line is it’s been three and a half years of aggravation, travelling, meeting lawyers, and God knows what else, so it is good it is out of the way.
“This trial has been going on for two days a week and it was going to go on until October. When you’re trying to run businesses it’s not easy trying to resolve things when you’re dealing with lawyers.
“In the end what has happened today is good and bad; the good is the judge more or less said I was acquitted, and they [the prosecution] really didn’t have a case.
“So I was a bit of an idiot to do what I did to settle because it wasn’t with the judge, it was with the prosecutors.
“Anyway, it’s done and finished, so it’s all right. I’m contented, it’s all fine.
“This now allows me to do what I do best, which is running F1.
“Another three months out would have been bad. I’ve been working weekends to catch up with what I’ve been missing during the week.
“I’ve not really noticed, but it’s probably taken its toll a little bit.”
The Munich court said in a statement that $99m (£59m) would be paid to the German treasury and a further $1m to a German children’s hospice charity. The money will be paid within a week, it added, after which the trial will officially be abandoned.
“The abandonment is neither a ‘deal’ nor a ‘settlement’, even less so a ‘buying out,’” said Ecclestone’s defence team in a joint statement. Prosecutors said they had based their decision partly on the defendant’s age and willingness to cooperate.
Ecclestone was accused of having given Bayern Landesbank's chief risk officer, Gerhard Gribkowsky, $44m in 2006 in order to ease the sale of the bank's share to a company that had guaranteed to keep Ecclestone as chief executive.
Throughout the trial, Ecclestone admitted paying the money but denied it was a bribe, saying he paid it to silence Gribkowsky who had threatened to report him over irregularities in his tax affairs. Gribkowsky was sentenced in 2012 to eight and a half years for tax evasion, breach of duty and accepting bribes.
In a statement explaining its decision to abandon proceedings, the court said it had “considerable doubts” that Ecclestone knew Gribkowsky had held the position at the German state bank at the time of the alleged bribe.
“Accordingly, a prosecution of the accused due to bribery is not probable as things stand,” the court said, despite admitting that all evidence in the case had not yet been heard.
Last week Ecclestone’s legal team informed the court that he was willing to pay €25m (£19.8m) to Bayern LB in a separate settlement. The bank, which had been seeking €400m in damages from Ecclestone, had rejected an earlier offer of €50m in 2012, the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported.
German law provides for some criminal cases to be settled with smaller punishments, such as fines, though the size of the payment in the Ecclestone case has led some to question a system that in effect favours rich defendants.
A paragraph in the German criminal code allows for trials to be ended under conditions that are “appropriate for resolving the public interest in a prosecution,” as long as the gravity of wrongdoing does not outweigh this.
In practice, wealthy defendants have in the past used this clause to buy their way out of criminal trials. But no one has ever paid so high a sum as has been agreed with Ecclestone.
The agreement, which his defence lawyers said kept his presumed innocence intact, means Ecclestone is able to continue unchallenged at the helm of the multibillion-pound business, which he is credited with building up over the past four decades.
If he had been sentenced, Ecclestone, a leading figure in the sport since the 1970s, could have faced up to 10 years in prison and would most likely have been forced to step down.
During the trial, Ecclestone handed over the day-to-day running of Formula One to his chief legal officer, Sacha Woodward-Hill. Now Ecclestone is once again free to take control, with no sign of the veteran sports magnate voluntarily giving up any of his considerable power.