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Bernie Ecclestone given suspended sentence after pleading guilty to fraud

The former Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has received a 17-month suspended sentence after pleading guilty to fraud, accused of failing to declare more than £400m of overseas assets to the UK government.

Ecclestone, who had originally denied the charges at a hearing in August, changed his plea at a case management hearing at Southwark crown court in London on Thursday. He had been due to stand trial in November.

Prosecutors told the court that Ecclestone would pay £652m to HM Revenue and Customs, the UK’s tax authority.

He was handed a 17-month jail term, suspended for two years, and was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £74,000.

The judge, Mr Justice Bryan, said he noted the “undoubted seriousness of your offending”, but said he had taken into account the low risk of reoffending and other factors such as his age, his medical condition, and the impact of a prison sentence on his young child.

Ecclestone was told by the judge to stand as he received his sentence. When asked if he understood the sentence he said: “I do.”

Leaving the court, Ecclestone was asked for comment, but his response was unintelligible as he got into the back of a white Range Rover.

After arriving at court on Thursday, wearing a grey three-piece suit, Ecclestone told the judge: “I plead guilty.”

Ecclestone, 92, ran Formula One from the late 1970s until January 2017, a position that made him one of the most prominent people in global motorsport. During that time, he grew Formula One into a prized global media asset while maintaining tight control of the commercial and sporting sides of the business.

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It was sold by the previous private equity owner, CVC, to America’s Liberty Media in 2017. Ecclestone was removed as leader of Formula One, and Liberty has since aimed to draw back younger audiences, including by producing a hit Netflix documentary, Drive to Survive, after viewing numbers dropped at the tail end of Ecclestone’s reign.

Ecclestone was accused of fraud by false representation after allegedly failing to declare the existence of a trust in Singapore. In July 2015 he dishonestly told HMRC that he had established only one single trust, in favour of his daughters, according to the charge.

Richard Wright KC, prosecuting, told the hearing that the charge related to a meeting between Ecclestone and tax officers on 7 July 2015. Ecclestone answered “no” when asked whether he had any links to further trusts “in or outside the UK”, but did not know the truth of the position so he should have said that he was unable to answer, Wright told the court.

Wright said: “The funds held there were very substantial and the annual losses and gains were tens and millions of United States dollars. Mr Ecclestone accepts that his answer ‘no’ was misleading.”

His defence barrister, Christine Montgomery KC, told the judge that the defendant “bitterly regrets the events that led to this criminal trial”.

Ecclestone had previously attended court with his wife, Fabiana, who is a vice-president of the International Automobile Federation (FIA), a motorsport governing body, and a member of the FIA world motor sport council.

The businessman has three adult daughters, Deborah, Tamara and Petra, and a young son, Ace.

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When announcing the charge in July, Simon York, the director of the tax authority’s fraud investigation service, said it followed a “complex and worldwide criminal investigation”.

“HMRC is on the side of honest taxpayers and we will take tough action wherever we suspect tax fraud,” he said in July. “Our message is clear – no one is beyond our reach.”