November 17, 2011 11:02 pm

SFO eyes probe into F1 bribery allegations

The UK’s Serious Fraud Office is examining whether to conduct its own investigation into the bribery allegations surrounding Bernie Ecclestone, the Formula One chief, who has admitted paying almost $23m to a German banker standing trial in Munich on corruption charges.

Dominic Grieve, the attorney-general, confirmed the SFO’s involvement in a letter to his Labour counterpart, Emily Thornberry, saying the SFO was liaising with authorities in Germany to consider the allegations surrounding Mr Ecclestone, a British citizen, “and whether there is scope for an investigation”.

Ms Thornberry had written to the attorney-general saying the criminal trial “raises questions relating to bribery, corruption and tax evasion that need to be investigated further by British authorities”.

The attorney-general told her his office was also liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service, although he said the CPS had not had allegations referred to it by the police.

The SFO told the FT: “The SFO is aware of the allegations against Mr Ecclestone and is liaising with the authorities in Germany to ascertain if there is a case in the UK to answer.” The attorney-general’s office said it would not comment on investigations or operations.

Mr Ecclestone said: “I haven’t got anything to say.” Asked if he had been contacted by the SFO, he said: “I am sure if they wanted to [contact me], they would ask me.”

Gerhard Gribkowsky is charged with receiving corrupt payments, breaches of trust and tax evasion.

Mr Gribkowsky was chief risk officer of BayernLB when it sold its F1 stake for $839m to CVC Capital Partners, the private equity group, in 2005.

The prosecution claims Mr Gribkowsky received almost $44m from Mr Ecclestone and Bambino, a trust linked to Mr Ecclestone’s ex-wife and part-owner of F1. Prosecutors also say Mr Gribkowsky helped arrange $66.5m of commission and other payments from BayernLB to Mr Ecclestone and Bambino. Mr Ecclestone has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

Mr Ecclestone last week told the court the payment was made because he was worried Mr Gribkowsky would bring false allegations to the UK tax authorities that might suggest that Mr Ecclestone was in control of Bambino, prompting a long and costly investigation.

Ms Thornberry said the SFO’s involvement was significant. There was a substantial amount of money involved, and the allegations were very serious and should be properly investigated, she said.

Judges presiding over Mr Gribkowsky’s trial were this week planning to question Stephen Mullens, a British lawyer who was an adviser to Bambino and a director of some of the companies controlled by F1. But Mr Mullens, who has not been charged with any offence, declined to appear. The court was told he had exercised his right not to answer questions that might cause him to incriminate himself.

Ms Thornberry said she intends to write to the Treasury to establish whether Mr Ecclestone’s tax affairs should be examined by HM Revenue & Customs.

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