By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Transcripts of the recordings reveal that Sissoko himself never offered the agent money in exchange for release of the aircraft. In fact, on numerous occasions Sissoko told Special Agent Outlaw he did not want to engage in any illegal activity because of his desire to maintain good relations with the United States. "If it is illegal," he said during one conversation, "I do not want to accept.... It will be bad against me." The transcripts also show that Outlaw pushed and prodded Sissoko to authorize payment of the bribe.
In retrospect, government officials concede, the criminal case against Sissoko could have been managed better by both the U.S. Attorney's Office and customs, particularly regarding the supervision of conversations between Outlaw and Sissoko. Normally a case involving allegations of bribery would be managed by prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's public corruption unit. But at the time the Sissoko case was developing, attorneys from that unit were scrambling to obtain indictments in the Operation Greenpalm probe of corruption at Miami City Hall, as well as investigating a group of rogue police officers in Broward. In fact, the Sissoko matter was such a low priority that it was initially assigned to Stephen Binhak, a 31-year-old prosecutor with only a couple of years of experience.
Defense attorneys believed Sissoko had been entrapped and that the tapes would have clearly revealed that. In their view, Comminges and Dieguimde were acting on their own when they offered a bribe to Outlaw. After learning of the scheme, Sissoko may have agreed to allow the bribe to be paid, but only because he felt he had no choice. According to the defense attorneys, Sissoko concluded he was being extorted by the customs agent and was afraid that if he didn't pay the money, he would never get the helicopters. In addition, the attorneys were prepared to make a cultural argument, the outlines of which were provided by H.T. Smith in an essay he wrote for the Miami Herald. From his client's standpoint, Smith argued, paying bureaucrats was not unusual. "In Sissoko's culture, not only is it legal, it is expected of a rich African chief," Smith wrote. "In 1988 Congress recognized these cultural differences at the behest of American businessmen. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was amended to permit businessmen to 'tip' foreign government officials for otherwise legal ministerial duties."
The defense attorneys say they knew they had a good chance of winning an acquittal -- if they could just agree on a strategy. "When you get that many lawyers on a case, you've got colonels and generals running off in their own directions with no leadership," Ted Klein admits.
But rather than concentrating on the merits of their defense, several of Sissoko's attorneys mounted personal attacks on prosecutor Stephen Binhak and customs agent Outlaw. In a motion to dismiss the charges against Sissoko and his co-defendants, for example, the attorneys pointedly accused Binhak and Outlaw of conspiring to frame Sissoko. That combative tone was carried over into the meetings between the defense attorneys and Binhak's superiors, both in Miami and Washington. "I guess it got personal," Klein acknowledges, "and that was unfortunate."
Late last year, as attacks on Binhak's character continued, justice department officials decided to assign an additional prosecutor to the case -- Richard Scruggs, a senior official with twenty years' experience. "I think it was disgraceful," Scruggs says, "how these senior and experienced defense attorneys tried to pick on a young and bright assistant United States attorney to attempt to dismiss this case and destroy his reputation." Scruggs himself would not be immune from attack, however. In what appeared to be a well-orchestrated campaign on Miami's black radio stations, both Scruggs and Binhak were accused of being racist for their determined efforts to prosecute Sissoko.
Simultaneously another campaign was under way in Washington, D.C., where former senator Birch Bayh was feverishly working the halls of Congress. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), Rep. Barney Frank (D-Massachusetts), Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), Rep. William Jefferson (D-Louisiana), as well as black members of Florida's congressional delegation -- Carrie Meek, Alcee Hastings, and Corrine Brown -- all lobbied the justice department on Sissoko's behalf. Corrine Brown was particularly forceful in promoting her view that Sissoko should not be required to serve his prison sentence and should instead be allowed to leave the country. "I see no good that can come of having Mr. Sissoko spend 41 days [sic] in a federal penitentiary," Brown wrote Attorney General Janet Reno on June 17. That was the second letter the Jacksonville Democrat had sent to Reno in a week, and it came just three days after she had spoken to Reno by telephone regarding Sissoko.
Bayh himself had several meetings with senior justice department officials, including Robert Litt, whom President Clinton had just nominated as assistant attorney general in charge of the entire criminal division; and Paul Fishman, an associate attorney general who worked for Reno's second in command, Jamie Gorelick. "In those meetings," says one knowledgeable source, "Bayh just completely trashed Binhak as someone who was evil and out of control."