F1: Settlement of German Ecclestone bribery case possible, says court

MUNICH - A bribery trial against Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone that has been threatening his hold over the motor sport may end early with a settlement, a Munich court spokeswoman said on Friday, after Ecclestone's lawyers held talks with prosecutors.

Munich newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung will report in its Saturday edition that the billionaire Ecclestone personally had negotiated a US$100 million (S$125 million) settlement with the state prosecutor on Friday.

Ecclestone's lawyer declined to comment on the amount. The state prosecutor also declined to comment on the report.

Ecclestone, 83, went on trial in Munich in April over allegations he bribed a former German banker as part of the sale of a major stake in the motor sport business eight years ago.

"It is possible that there will be a settlement," a spokeswoman for the district court told Reuters, adding the court had told witnesses due to appear in the trial next week that they need not come.

Ecclestone's lawyers held talks with prosecutors on Tuesday.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung will report on Saturday that prosecutors had demanded 100 million euros but that was too high for Ecclestone. He negotiated himself with the prosecutor and agreed to a US$100 million settlement.

The newspaper said the state prosecutor would still be able to tout the US$100 million figure.

Lawyers for Ecclestone, who denies wrongdoing, said they had offered to pay German state-owned bank BayernLB 25 million euros (S$41.85 million) to help settle the case.

If convicted the British magnate could face up to 10 years in jail and would have to cede control of a business he has built up over the past four decades.

Prosecutors have rejected a request from the defence to drop proceedings on the grounds of a lack of evidence.

Under German law, a settlement payment to a party involved would not necessarily bring a criminal case to an end.

Ecclestone is accused of channelling US$44 million to jailed BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to smooth the sale of a major stake in the business by the bank to private equity fund CVC, which became the largest shareholder in Formula One in 2006.

The prosecution alleges that Ecclestone wanted CVC to take control because this meant he could stay on as chief executive of a business he had been instrumental in building.

Gribkowsky had been chief risk officer at state-owned bank BayernLB, which became a major shareholder in Formula One following the collapse of the Kirch media group in 2002.

Ecclestone says he paid off Gribkowsky as an "insurance policy" after the German threatened to make damaging false claims about his tax affairs. He funded the payment with a commission taken from BayernLB after the sale to CVC.

Under German law, judges, prosecutors and the defence can agree to dismiss a case or settle it with a light punishment, although terms for such an agreement are strictly defined.

Ecclestone had previously offered to pay money back to BayernLB in 2012 to try to prevent the case from going ahead but that proposal was rejected.