Baba's Big Bucks

African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko opened his checkbook and stole Miami's heart. Not surprisingly, that wasn't the only thing he stole.

When Sissoko left Miami, he took with him the true answer to the question that had most intrigued admirers and detractors alike: Where did his money come from? He seemed to have as many answers to that question as he had wives. The New York Times reported that he began his entrepreneurial career as a textile trader in India. His Miami attorneys distributed a biography in which he had become wealthy when oil was discovered on land he owned. Sissoko, however, told an Associated Press reporter that he had never owned land that contained oil; rather, he asserted, he was an oil middleman.

In 1996, according to the Miami Herald, Sissoko told a French-language magazine that he made his fortune in Gabon, largely in the wood trade. And in 1997 the Herald reported what it described as "prevalent rumors" that Sissoko's fortune was the result of his having looted archaeological treasures from Mali. The most fanciful account, promoted by Sissoko himself, had him striking it rich while working as a laborer in the diamond mines of Liberia.

Authorities now believe they know the source of the man's wealth. Within days of Ayyoub's admission, investigators around the globe began snooping their way along a trail of money that has led directly to Sissoko. Bank records show that between August 1995 and January 1998, nearly $81 million was wired from the Dubai Islamic Bank to bank accounts under Sissoko's control in New York and Miami. Approximately $72 million was sent to banks in Switzerland and the Isle of Man. Another $10 million was charged on a Visa card issued by the Dubai Islamic Bank in Sissoko's name, with most of the purchases made in Miami. And finally, auditors say, they discovered that nearly $80 million was carried out of the Dubai Islamic Bank in cash during that 30-month period. Witnesses told United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities that the money was picked up by Sissoko's minions and carted off in plastic shopping bags.

According to Rob Ellison, an English bank investigator who has been hired by the UAE government to track down Sissoko and his assets, warrants have been issued for Sissoko's arrest in both the UAE and Switzerland, where he is now suspected of money laundering. Sissoko, however, has not been charged with a crime in either country.

The UAE has also requested the help of both the U.S. Justice Department and the Treasury Department in investigating Sissoko's activities. New Times has confirmed the "request for judicial assistance" -- as it is formally known -- and has learned that twice in recent months U.S. Customs agents have been dispatched to Dubai to share information with UAE officials and to gather evidence for a newly initiated criminal investigation against Sissoko here in Miami.

William Richey, a Miami attorney and former state prosecutor who has been retained by the Dubai Islamic Bank to seize Sissoko's assets in the United States, claims he has presented "clear and compelling" evidence to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami that Sissoko engaged in money laundering in the United States. "The allegations outlined against Mr. Sissoko constitute a violation of federal criminal law, and I would assume the U.S. Attorney's Office would investigate that and take the appropriate steps," he says. The U.S. Attorney's Office had no comment on the allegations.

"This is a world-class con man, a world-class fraudster," adds Richey. "He essentially conned most of Dade County and South Florida. Most people here believed in him." Richey, along with co-counsel Alan Fine, filed a lawsuit last month in state court against Sissoko, hoping to recover as much money and property as possible. The entire lawsuit remained under seal until earlier this week.

Sissoko's principal attorney in Miami, Thomas Spencer, was dumbfounded by the allegations. "Wow," he said after learning of the lawsuit. "I am just stunned, absolutely stunned. This is unbelievable. What a shame." Spencer noted he has been unable to reach Sissoko for three weeks. "All of the phone lines we had for him were suddenly disconnected," he said. "Maybe this explains why."

As a result of the lawsuit, Sissoko's bank accounts in Miami and New York have been frozen for nearly a month. Accounts in Switzerland and the Isle of Man have also been frozen. "What we are trying to do now more than anything else is to find the money," Richey explains. "We are going from bank to bank looking for assets. And to the extent that we can find his assets -- either money or property -- we are going to take steps to recover those assets for the bank in Dubai."

To date, Richey and Rob Ellison have had only limited success. Just two million dollars was left in the Swiss accounts, and about a million in the United States. Most of the accounts had been cleaned out and the money transferred to Africa, Ellison says.

But Richey is not limiting his search to banks. He has a team of private investigators tracing items purchased by Sissoko so they too can be seized, including the condominiums Sissoko bought on Brickell Key near downtown Miami. "We have several million dollars' worth of property here in Dade County that we are going to be acting on," Richey says.

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