Formula One CEO Bernie Ecclestone is facing charges in Germany of bribery and incitement to breach of trust. His trial starts April 24 and much of the speculation thus far has focused on the maximum possible penalty should he be convicted: 10 years in prison.
To determine whether such a sentence would actually be likely, and to help explain the charges and the complexities of the case to those of us unfamiliar with the German legal system, I engaged two experts in the field.
Dr. Bernd Heinrich, a professor of criminal law at the Humboldt University of Berlin and Dr. Frank Saliger, who holds the Chair of Criminal Law at the Bucerius Law School in Hamburg, both answered questions via email.
First, a recap and explanation of the charges Ecclestone is facing. The bribery charge relates to a £27 million payment to German banker Gerhard Gribkowsky, allegedly to influence his bank to sell its F1 shares to current shareholder CVC Capital Partners.
The charge of incitement to breach of trust or, as Dr. Saliger points out, "abetment to embezzlement and abuse of trust," according to the official translation of the German Criminal Code, means Gribkowsky's bank, "allegedly paid a commission...to Ecclestone to cover the [alleged] bribery sum paid to Gribkowsky...and that Ecclestone persuaded them to do so."
This, Dr. Saliger goes on, "constitutes the breach of the CFO’s duty to protect the company’s property who thus commits the offence of embezzlement and abuse of trust which Ecclestone allegedly abetted."
Both professors stressed that they are not privy to any inside information of this case, and they are speaking based on their general knowledge of the charges and procedures in Germany.
When asked what kind of sentence Ecclestone could reasonably expect should he be convicted, Dr. Heinrich noted that, "The maximum sentence will probably not be handed out in this case because handing out the maximum penalty is rarely done in Germany."
Specifically, he predicted that, "If Mr. Ecclestone pleaded guilty, the court could offer a two-year prison sentence."
More significantly, Dr. Heinrich said that a sentence of, "Up to two years...can be changed into a suspended sentence in Germany. Therefore it is possible that Mr. Ecclestone does not have to serve any prison time."
But would Ecclestone be interested in a deal for a reduced sentence?
The F1 boss has always maintained his innocence and has not given any indication that he would consider a guilty plea. A statement released by Delta Topco, F1's parent company, said via The Guardian, "Mr Ecclestone has reassured the board that he is innocent of the charges and intends to vigorously defend the case."
Interestingly, though, Rob Harris of The Associated Press is reporting that Ecclestone had a cryptic response when asked recently whether he was worried about the trial:
Been at F1 charity event where Bernie Ecclestone said of looming bribery trial in Germany:"Bet you it doesn't happen" http://t.co/BN3qMZm9LT— Rob Harris (@RobHarris) February 7, 2014
Of course, any conviction, whether reached through a guilty plea or not, would end Ecclestone's tenure at the helm of F1. Donald Mackenzie, the co-founder and co-chairman of CVC Capital, has said, ""If it is proven that Mr Ecclestone has done anything that is criminally wrong, we would fire him," according to Keith Weir of Reuters.
If Ecclestone does plead not guilty, but he is convicted anyway, Dr. Heinrich cautioned that he could face a stiffer sentence. "The reason is," he said, "if any defendant pleads guilty and accepts a 'deal', the court believes that the defendant actually regrets his actions. Positive conduct after having committed a criminal offense (e.g. a guilty plea) can be regarded as a mitigating factor."
Still, Dr. Saliger acknowledged that, "The nature and amount of punishment...cannot be reliably predicted...without having knowledge of the relevant factors which will influence the sentence."
It is difficult to imagine Ecclestone willingly giving up the F1 empire he has built. It is even more difficult to imagine him behind bars.
To avoid those outcomes, Ecclestone must not only be sure of his own innocence, but he must be reasonably sure of his (and his lawyers') ability to convince the court he is innocent—a court that has already convicted Gribkowsky of accepting the bribe Ecclestone is accused of paying.
Although many F1 fans would be happy to see Ecclestone completely relinquish his control over the sport, there can be no denying his role in the success of the series. If he were forced to permanently step down, it would be a sad end to an incredible career.
Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert