The Baba Chronicles

For some people, African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko was a dream come true. For others he was a nightmare.

The most fanciful account, promoted by Sissoko himself, has him striking it rich while laboring in the diamond mines of Liberia. Five days a week the miners worked for the company, which provided them a modest salary and room and board, Sissoko recounted in an interview with reporters several months ago. One day a week, however, the miners were allowed to sift through dirt discarded from the mine and keep any diamonds they might come across. According to Sissoko, it took him just six months to collect thirteen stones worth nine million dollars. In fact, he told the Associated Press, he has such a knack for finding diamonds that once, while working as a servant in Senegal, he stumbled across a single diamond worth $4.5 million.

Many people question Sissoko's claims of found wealth. Recent published reports, for instance, cast doubt on the Liberian diamond story. Typically, diamonds from that area are industrial quality and do not command such high prices.

Liberia, however, is considered an agreeable locale for another type of business: arms trafficking. Speculation that Sissoko may be involved in the international arms trade got a boost earlier this year when he was spotted at a Miami hotel meeting with the infamous Sarkis Soghanalian, who went to federal prison for trying to sell 103 U.S. combat helicopters to Iraq's Saddam Hussein in 1983. A Sissoko aide downplayed the meeting, claiming that the two men have mutual friends and that Sissoko wasn't even aware of Soghanalian's history as an arms trafficker.

The newest information regarding the source of Sissoko's money comes from Ewa Adamek, the former entourage member who acted as an interpreter. Adamek says Sissoko often bragged of his close ties to Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. "Baba is a personal friend of Gadhafi," she asserts. "He said if he ever needed money all he needed to do was make one telephone call to Gadhafi."

Officials at the state department and the justice department say they have no idea how Sissoko comes by his wealth. "He's got all sorts of money and nobody knows how it was made," says one senior government source. "There is no trail here -- nothing." (Through his attorneys, Sissoko declined to speak directly to New Times for this article.)

Today Sissoko controls an array of business ventures in the United States, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East, including interests in several hotels and casinos. But his most recent entrepreneurial dream seems to have been establishing an airline -- named for his hometown and providing nonstop service between Gambia and New York. In the past few years Sissoko has spent tens of millions of dollars buying planes and courting American officials he believed could help him.

One person who might have been able to provide him access to government officials was John Catsimatidis, CEO of the New York firm Red Apple Companies, which sold Sissoko a pair of jetliners for three million dollars. Catsimatidis is also a major Democratic Party fundraiser, and he told the New York Times he had hopes that Sissoko would help enrich party coffers. Two months before last year's presidential election, Sissoko was invited to attend a dinner party with President Clinton in Washington.

Sissoko accepted, but events conspired to thwart his opportunity for an evening with the president. Just days before the September 6 dinner, he was arrested by Interpol in Geneva, Switzerland.

He may have missed a night of schmoozing with the most powerful man in America, but Sissoko wasted no time making the acquaintance of certain members of South Florida's power elite. Among his local attorneys have been Ted Klein, whose 1995 nomination to the federal bench by Clinton was scuttled amid partisan wrangling; Thomas Spencer, Jr., whose client list includes former Iran-contra figure Gen. Richard Secord, and who successfully argued in federal court that the 1994 Hialeah mayor's race should be set aside because of allegations of vote fraud; and H.T. Smith, one of South Florida's most prominent and influential black attorneys and former president of the National Bar Association. Additional attorneys -- no one seems to know precisely how many -- were retained here, in New York, and in Los Angeles.

To work the corridors of Washington, Sissoko hired former Indiana senator Birch Bayh, who lost his seat to Dan Quayle in 1980. Sissoko also retained a separate team of lawyers to represent Serge Comminges, Moumouni Dieguimde, and Miriama Darboe.

After sitting in a Swiss jail for two months, Sissoko decided not to fight his extradition, and in late October he was flown to Miami to be charged in federal court with bribery and violation of federal export regulations. His bail was set at $20 million, the highest bond ever required of a defendant in the Southern District of Florida. He posted it within hours.

Had the matter gone to trial, the government's case would have succeeded or failed on the strength of a series of secretly recorded telephone conversations in which Sissoko, using Darboe as a interpreter, spoke with Outlaw regarding delivery of the two Bell helicopters. In all likelihood, those taped conversations would have raised serious doubts about the charges against him.

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