The Ecclestone case: impunity for the global elite?

5 August 2014, by Robert Barrington, Transparency International UK.

This post was originally published on the TI-UK website.

We have heard the news today that a settlement has been reached in the Bernie Ecclestone bribery case. Although the full details of the case and settlement have yet to emerge, it looks disturbing at first sight. As a general rule, society does not benefit from a system in which corrupt individuals are able to buy their way out of a threatening legal situation. That sounds like a form of legalised bribery. In both the UK and the US, there have been several such settlements that leave the lingering feeling that justice has not been served. What does justice look like? At its simplest, it is proof or admission of guilt, incarceration for those who are guilty, and restitution for the victims.

What are the features of a good settlement? Here are five tests:

  • An admission of guilt to corruption offences – not just to a spurious books and record offence
  • Full transparency over the nature of the offence
  • A clear description of why a settlement, not prosecution, was considered to be in the interests of justice
  • A willingness to prosecute the intermediaries who helped the corrupt action to take place
  • A full analysis of the damage done by the corrupt activity, and proper compensation for the injured parties.

On the positive side, it need not be the case that a corruption story ends with one regrettable settlement. There is an opportunity for other jurisdictions to take up the case, assuming that laws such as the FCPA in the US or the UK’s Bribery Act may have been violated. There is also an opportunity for the boards of companies involved to declare unethical colleagues persona non grata.

Corruption undermines society, damages the economy and harms individuals. We should beware a society in which a rich and corrupt global elite are able to operate with impunity. Easy settlements of corruption cases for those who can well afford to pay a fine are no way to achieve justice.