Former F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone has avoided jail after pleading guilty to fraud over his failure to declare £400 million held in a trust in Singapore to the government.
Ecclestone, who will turn 93 later this month, was sentenced to 17 months in jail, suspended for two years, at Southwark Crown Court. The billionaire also made a £652.6 million payment to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) to cover his tax affairs spanning 18 years, reported Sky News.
Ecclestone was initially scheduled to face trial in November, but he appeared in court on Oct 12 wearing a dark grey suit, accompanied by his third wife, Fabiana Flosi, and pleaded guilty to a single count of fraud that dated back to July 7, 2015. The prosecution argued that Ecclestone provided misleading information to HMRC during a July 2015 meeting when he claimed to have “established only a single trust” in favour of his daughters Deborah, Tamara, and Petra.
At that meeting, when asked whether he had any links to additional trusts “in or outside the UK,” Ecclestone responded with a “no.” Subsequently, it was revealed that he had not declared a trust in Singapore, which held approximately S$650 million, equivalent to about £400 million at that time. Richard Wright KC, the prosecutor, noted that Ecclestone “knew his answer may have been untrue or misleading” but “did not know the truth of the position, so was not able to give an answer to the question.”
Legal and personal repercussions
“Mr Ecclestone recognizes it was wrong to answer the questions he did because it ran the risk that HMRC would not continue to investigate his affairs,” said Mr. Wright. “He now accepts that some tax is due in relation to these matters.”
It was disclosed that Ecclestone saved around £100,000 in fees by prematurely ending the investigation, though Mr Wright pointed out that “one could argue there’s been no savings because the discovery of the lie has led to significant expenditure in legal fees”.
During a prior hearing, Ecclestone’s lawyer, Clare Montgomery KC, attempted to argue that her client should not face trial, asserting that the stress of proceedings could have fatal consequences due to his frail health. Ms Montgomery also claimed that Ecclestone was charged a week after making “extremely unpopular” remarks about Russian President Vladimir Putin on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in June 2022.
She stated, “We will be submitting, on the face of it, the assumption he was being prosecuted because of that rather than the legitimate public interest criteria.”
Ecclestone’s regrets and sentencing
Ecclestone was compelled to apologize for his comments, wherein he said he would “take a bullet” for Mr Putin and described him as “a first-class person.” Ms Montgomery added that Ecclestone “bitterly regrets” the events leading to his prosecution, emphasizing that it was never his intention to evade tax, and he had always been willing to pay the tax that was due. She characterized his answer as an “impulsive lapse of judgment.”
At the sentencing, Ecclestone stood in the dock, and Mr Justice Bryan acknowledged the “undoubted seriousness” of his offence. However, the judge took into account factors such as Ecclestone’s age, health, and the substantial tax settlement he had paid.
Following the court proceedings, Ecclestone made an inaudible response to questions from reporters before getting into a waiting white Range Rover.
Richard Las, the HMRC chief investigation officer, commented on the case: “Bernie Ecclestone has had ample time and numerous opportunities to take responsibility and be honest with HMRC about his tax affairs. Instead of taking these opportunities, he lied to HMRC, and as a result, we opened a criminal investigation. This investigation has involved inquiries around the world and culminated with Bernie Ecclestone’s guilty plea to fraud. He now has a criminal record and has paid £652 million relating to his wider tax affairs.”