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.

According to Ellison, it's true that Ayyoub attempted to recover money from Sissoko on his own, but those efforts not only cost the bank even more money, they have now led investigators down another bizarre and unexpected path.

Ayyoub has told authorities that in early December of last year, a man named Cherif Haidara came to see him at the bank. "He told Ayyoub he could assist him in recovering the money from Sissoko," Ellison says. Worried about the impending year-end audits, Ayyoub agreed to pay the man for his assistance. He advanced some cash to Haidara, who returned a few days later, reported on his progress, and asked for more money. This went on for several weeks, Ellison recounts, until finally Haidara disappeared completely. "By the time it was over, Ayyoub had paid Haidara nearly three million dollars in bank funds," Ellison sighs, "and he never actually provided any useful information. He was just a con man."

Ellison traced the payments made to Haidara and discovered that Ayyoub had transferred a total of $2.85 million from the Dubai Islamic Bank to a numbered account at Merrill Lynch in New York between December 7, 1997, and January 6, 1998. Just last week Merrill Lynch confirmed for Ellison that the account was controlled by Haidara.

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When Ayyoub confessed to authorities in March, he also told them about Haidara. Ellison suspects Haidara probably has some connection to Sissoko as well -- how else would he have known that Ayyoub had secretly transferred money to him?

By the end of March, UAE police had issued a warrant for Haidara's arrest. A few weeks later authorities discovered that he had re-entered the country and they promptly raided his home. "When they arrested him, he had in his possession five million Bahraini dinars," Ellison says. (The Bahraini dinar is the currency of the small island nation of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf. Five million Bahraini dinars is worth about $13.2 million.)

"It was subsequently discovered that these five million Bahraini dinars were actually counterfeit currency notes," Ellison says with amazement. Authorities believe the bills were the work of a criminal ring that has reportedly printed more than 150 million Bahraini dinars ($400 million) to spread throughout the Middle East. The phony bills are believed to have been produced in Brazil.

Does Sissoko have anything to do with the counterfeit dinars? Ellison has asked himself that question but says there is no evidence to support a connection. Still, he says, one of the reasons police arrested Haidara and thereby found the money was their suspicion that he was somehow tied to Sissoko. "It's all quite amazing," Ellison laughs.

Just about everything associated with Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko can be described as amazing. He first came to the attention of law enforcement agencies here in Miami during the summer of 1996, when two of his employees purchased a pair of Vietnam-era helicopters and sought to have them shipped to the West African nation of Gambia, where Sissoko owned a hotel and a casino. Those particular helicopters needed a special export license. Rather than apply for the necessary permits, the pair tried to smuggle them out of the country and were caught by Customs agents at Miami International Airport.

The two Sissoko lackeys then attempted to bribe a Customs agent. The agent reported the bribe to his superiors, who then set up a sting operation that ensnared Sissoko. In secretly recorded telephone conversations, Sissoko promised additional payments to the Customs agent if he allowed the helicopters to be shipped without the permits. As a result, and unbeknown to Sissoko, an international warrant was issued for his arrest on charges of attempting to bribe a U.S. Customs agent.

In the meantime, Sissoko concentrated on his chief priority -- starting up his own airline, Air Dabia. For more than a year he had been buying passenger jets and other aircraft in the United States -- apparently with money provided by the Dubai Islamic Bank.

One of the individuals Sissoko did business with was John Catsimatidis, CEO of a New York supermarket chain, who sold Sissoko a pair of jetliners for three million dollars. Catsimatidis also happened to be a major Democratic Party fundraiser. Last year he told the New York Times he had initially approached Sissoko in 1996 about donating to the Democratic Party. Indeed, two months before the 1996 presidential election, Sissoko was invited to attend a dinner party with President Clinton in Washington. He accepted.

Unfortunately Sissoko was unable to go. Just days before the September 6, 1996, White House gala, he was arrested by Interpol in Geneva, Switzerland, on warrants issued in Florida. In October he arrived in Miami in handcuffs and was subsequently released after posting a $20 million bond -- the largest bond ever issued in a criminal case in the federal Southern District of Florida.

A large entourage followed Sissoko to Miami and established residence on posh Brickell Key. According to his own attorneys, Sissoko leased ten apartments on the 26th floor of Courvoisier Courts for approximately $50,000 per month; he also purchased five condominiums at Tequesta Point for somewhere between two and three million dollars.

In early March 1997, while walking through the lobby of the Hotel Inter-Continental, he heard a high school marching band playing and inquired about them. He learned that they were at the hotel playing for a bar mitzvah as part of their effort to raise enough money to attend the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Sissoko was told the school needed $150,000. He immediately wrote them a check for $300,000.

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