The Baba Chronicles

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

In another endeavor, a congressional staff member directly called the prosecutors to question why Sissoko was being prosecuted -- a staggering breach of propriety. Neither Scruggs nor Binhak will comment on the actions of individual members of Congress, but both stress that the efforts of Bayh and others to influence the outcome of the case failed.

Speaking with unusual candor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scruggs expresses amazement at the intensity of maneuvering on Sissoko's behalf: "Several months ago I said that in my twenty years as a prosecutor, I have never seen such a blatant attempt to exercise political pressure. And since then it has only increased. I have never experienced such direct demands from community leaders and from members of Congress through the attorney general's office to try and get me to dismiss a case."

Birch Bayh did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this article. His colleagues on Sissoko's defense team, though, eventually took pains to distance themselves from his actions. "It was coming only from Bayh's office," says Thomas Spencer, who described the lobbying strategy as "unorthodox" and "a mistake."

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"I would not engage in such conduct," adds Ted Klein. "I have never seen where those kinds of things were ever effective." Klein's disdain for Bayh grew over the past year to the point that, in meetings with other attorneys, he began referring to the former senator as "Birch Barf." "I'm not going to deny that I said that," an embarrassed Klein concedes today. "It was an intemperate remark on my part and I am not proud of having said that."

In January Sissoko pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of authorizing an illegal gratuity. The plea bargain marked the only successful compromise between prosecutors and defense attorneys, for whom relations were so strained that simple discourse became nearly impossible.

At the sentencing in March, the courtroom was packed with Sissoko supporters, including ambassadors from four African nations who were there to offer testimonials. But U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore cut short the gathering and quickly sentenced Sissoko to four months in jail -- the minimum possible. With credit for the time he served in Switzerland awaiting extradition, he owes a mere 43 days of jail time. Moore also sentenced him to four months of house arrest and hit him with a $250,000 fine. (Prosecutors had asked for a prison term of fourteen months.)

So why did nearly six months pass between Sissoko's sentencing and his surrender to jailers this past week? "It beats the hell out of me," Ted Klein says. "If I had my way, I would have walked him over to the jail right then, knocked on the door, and let him start serving his 43 days. But I'm not in control. This is just another product of the many people he has around him."

According to Thomas Spencer, even the appeal on the grounds that Sissoko was protected by diplomatic immunity wasn't the defendant's idea. That appeal was filed by attorneys representing Gambia, who claimed that Sissoko, at the time of his arrest, was traveling under a diplomatic passport. "He has to let them play it all out," says Spencer, "because otherwise he wouldn't get the respect of the people who are trying to help him -- the president of Mali, the president of Senegal, the president of Togo, the president of Gambia."

Today Sissoko's principal criminal defense attorney is Mark Schnapp, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice at Greenberg Traurig, one of South Florida's most influential law firms. Schnapp was recently hired to determine if prosecutors might be willing to look at the case again and recommend that Sissoko be deported rather than imprisoned. Spencer and Klein say Schnapp was brought in because of the poisoned relationship between prosecutors and defense attorneys. But even with Schnapp leading the way, a new compromise proved to be impossible.

Sissoko did not leave his fate completely in the hands of attorneys, however. According to former entourage member Ewa Adamek, the millionaire arranged for evil spells to be cast over Binhak, Scruggs, and Judge Moore. Adamek says she was asked by one of Sissoko's aides to carefully spell their names over the phone for a woman in Africa, who then delivered the names to a remote village in Mali, where a prayer service was held. "They prayed that the power of the judge and the prosecutor would be destroyed," she recounts.

That wasn't all. A special mixture of powders and a bottle of violet-colored water were brought to Miami by a courier. Some of the powders were secretly spread around the downtown federal courthouse prior to hearings, Adamek says. Sissoko poured the rest in the bay waters around Brickell Key, along with milk and salt. "He would watch the way the water carried the milk for a sign of what to do," she recalls. As for the violet-colored water, Sissoko was instructed to wash behind his ears with it twice a day to stave off any threats from those trying to imprison him. "In their minds, this was the most powerful thing they could do to the prosecutors and the judge," Adamek explains. "And they were shocked when it didn't work."

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