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.

Another target for seizure: The $60,000 Mercedes-Benz automobiles Sissoko gave as gifts to his Miami attorneys -- H.T. Smith, Tom Spencer, and Ted Klein. "We will probably have some dialogue with those attorneys," Richey notes. "Those lawyers are reputable, good, decent people, and to the degree that those are gifts bought with stolen money, I feel comfortable that those attorneys will do the right thing and would not want to be holding the proceeds of a theft."

Ultimately, Richey adds, it will be up to the courts to decide if the cars, the property, and the money in the frozen accounts will be turned over to the Dubai Islamic Bank.

Spencer said he and the other attorneys had no way of knowing the cars were not legitimate gifts. "I don't see that the bank would have any legal right to seize them," he added.

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Regarding Sissoko's philanthropy, both Richey and Ellison have recommended to bank officials in Dubai that the institution not try to recover the money Sissoko donated to Camillus House, the venerable Miami homeless shelter. "I've made the recommendation that the bank shouldn't do anything about the Camillus House donation," Ellison affirms. "Except if there is a plaque up anywhere that says this facility was provided by the generosity of Sissoko, then that should come down and one should go up that says this was provided by the generosity of Dubai Islamic Bank."

The same holds for the donation to Miami Central High School.

In Dubai, Ayyoub and the bank's chief accountant, Hussein El Refaie -- who has admitted assisting Ayyoub in making the transfers to Sissoko's accounts -- were arrested this past March and charged with embezzlement. Though the government did not want to precipitate a public scandal and tried to keep the bank's losses secret, word leaked out. An independent, Arabic-language newspaper published a story in late March indicating that a large sum of money was missing from the Dubai Islamic Bank. Panic ensued.

In a matter of hours, hundreds of people lined up to retrieve their savings from the bank. In only a few days, more than two billion dirhams ($545 million) was withdrawn by individuals who were afraid the bank was about to go under.

The run on the bank not only threatened to destroy the Dubai Islamic Bank, but it began to undermine the stability of other banks in the country. "The government was very concerned that the run on the bank would spread," confirms an American embassy source who asked not to be identified. "It was front-page news here and a lot of people were talking about it."

The government was forced to step in; it provided 1.7 billion dirhams ($463 million) in emergency loans to restore confidence in the bank. It also announced that it was appointing a special four-member executive committee to take over daily operations of the institution and to investigate what had occurred.

Publicly the UAE government downplayed the crisis. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Deputy Ruler of Dubai and the country's minister of finance and industry, issued a statement describing the bank's problems as "a little difficulty that did not lead to any financial losses either in the bank's investments or depositors' accounts."

That "little difficulty" has kept Ellison busy for nearly four months now. Hired by the bank's newly appointed executive committee to sort through the tangled finances and sordid tales of mismanagement, Ellison is a globe-trotting professional troubleshooter for wayward banks. Over the years he has dealt with all manner of thievery and incompetence among bank managers, he says, but among all those experiences he says he has never encountered a stranger tale than the one he found at the Dubai Islamic Bank. "I have never been in a situation like this one before," he says. "Never."

The earliest record Ellison could find of Sissoko having contact with the bank was in the summer of 1995, when he applied for and received an automobile loan. "That was his introduction to the bank," Ellison says. "The question everyone asks is, 'If Sissoko was such a rich man, why did he need a bank to purchase a car?'" Ellison suspects the loan was a pretext to meet bank officials like Mohammed Ayyoub.

In his statements to bank executives and police, Ayyoub said Sissoko invited him to have dinner. According to Ellison, Ayyoub visited a villa Sissoko was renting in Dubai and came to believe that Sissoko was wealthy. "Bankers love rich men," Ellison observes. "They're drawn to them." Sissoko apparently dazzled Ayyoub, at one point showing him a room Sissoko claimed was filled with cash and gold bullion. Ellison believes this was part of Sissoko's plan to gain Ayyoub's confidence. "When they went inside the room, there were flashing lights and it was hard to see," Ellison says. "Who knows what was really in there?"

Investigators are still attempting to determine Sissoko's wealth before he met Ayyoub. "He could be a clever con man who has been doing things like this for years and who came to Dubai because he heard there were rich pickings in the Gulf," Ellison speculates. "We just don't know. But so far we've come up with nothing to suggest that Sissoko had more than a relatively small sum of money with him when he arrived."

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