The decision by a German criminal court to allow Formula 1 CEO Bernie Ecclestone to end his trial on bribery charges by paying a $100-million (U.S.) fine is appalling on many levels.
First, of course, is the admission by the German justice system that there is one way of justice for the rich and another for everyone else. By taking advantage of a German law that allows some criminal cases to be settled by fines without any finding of guilt, Mr. Ecclestone will write a cheque for $100-million and walk away.
With a straight face, he can tell family, friends and business associates he is not guilty of bribing a German banker with $44-million to make sure the bank sold its F1 shares to a preferred bidder who promised to retain Mr. Ecclestone as the head of the giant auto-racing concern. This despite the fact the banker in question is already serving an 8 1/2 year sentence after being found guilty for accepting the payment from Mr. Ecclestone.
The racing boss’s personal worth is estimated to be around $4.5-billion. In that stratosphere, $100-million is just a speed bump; the chump change necessary to make minor annoyances disappear.
The strange logic of the German system – where an accused can sometimes pay a fine but avoid admitting guilt – is also often employed by securities commissions in Canada and the United States. It doesn’t sit well there, either. If you’re guilty, you should pay and be identified as such. And if you’re not guilty, you shouldn’t pay or be punished in the least.
But there is something to be said for the Germans’ application of settlement methods commonly used in civil courts to the criminal realm. Many white-collar cases would be better dealt with a hefty fine rather than jail time. But that should only happen after a finding of guilty. There should be no skipping of the accountability phase of the proceedings and heading directly to punishment (or exoneration-for-a-fee). Otherwise, it’s chequebook justice.