By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
On Saturday morning, March 14, Hussain Mohamed Salim was driving from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates, when he received a call on his pager from Mohammed Ayyoub. In addition to being the branch manager of the Dubai Islamic Bank in Abu Dhabi, Salim also served on the bank's finance committee, which oversaw the institution's day-to-day operations.
Salim thought it odd that Ayyoub, who managed the bank's main branch in Dubai, was trying to contact him so early in the morning, and he called back using his cellular phone. "He immediately asked, 'Where are you, Hussain, at the moment? Are you far away or close to Dubai?' I told him I was [about eighteen miles outside Dubai], on my way to the office," Salim remembered. "Ayyoub said there was a very important matter to discuss. He said he wanted to inform me about it right away."
Ayyoub went on to say that he didn't wish to talk in his office and wanted to meet somewhere away from the bank. They agreed on a site -- a parking lot on the outskirts of the city. Salim arrived first and a few minutes later Ayyoub pulled up in his green Range Rover. Salim was still confused about the clandestine nature of this meeting when Ayyoub slipped into the passenger seat beside him.
Salim asked what was wrong. Ayyoub began by telling Salim that he had made a terrible mistake. He said he had fallen under the spell of an African man and had been transferring money to him abroad. "I was shocked," Salim recalled. "I asked, 'What is the amount? Is it ten million dirhams?'"
(The dirham is the currency of the United Arab Emirates. Ten million dirhams would be slightly more than $2.7 million.)
"More than that," Ayyoub replied. "It's a big amount."
"How much?" Salim asked again.
Ayyoub couldn't bring himself to say the number aloud and so took out a piece of paper, wrote on it, and passed it to Salim. There, on a four-inch-square scrap, Ayyoub had written the figure in ballpoint pen: 891 million dirhams.
Approximately $242 million.
Salim could not believe his eyes. Ayyoub anxiously explained that he was trying to figure out a way to get the money back but he had been unable to reach the African man. He told Salim that auditors from the United Arab Emirates' Central Bank -- the country's main banking authority -- were conducting their annual audit and were asking questions about some of the wire transfers. He had stalled them, but they were becoming insistent.
"I asked how he had transferred so much money without approval or authorization," Salim later recalled. "Ayyoub said he had been under the influence of, or pressured by, the rich man to transfer the money." The rich man had told Ayyoub that he could make the money magically reappear whenever he wanted so Ayyoub shouldn't worry about forwarding him the funds. Ayyoub told Salim he had been trying to call the rich man for several days, to no avail. (The bank's telephone records would later show that as soon as government auditors began their review, Ayyoub dialed the man's phone number in Africa more than 150 times over several days.)
Ayyoub was hoping Salim might have a suggestion about what to do, but Salim was dumbfounded. "I did not know what to tell him or what to think," Salim testified in a subsequent affidavit. "So much money transferred with no authority. I thought, maybe the bank is sinking." After the two men parted, Salim drove to the home of the bank's chairman, Saeed bin Ahmed Lootah. "I was not sure how to start. What to say?" Salim remembered. "I told him the story. He was incredulous. 'What? Ayyoub did that? What's the amount? When did it happen? Why did he do it?'"
Other officers of the privately owned bank were called to Lootah's home. "The general reaction of all the people at the chairman's house was shock," Salim added. Ayyoub was then summoned and he repeated his story. This time, however, Ayyoub divulged the name of the rich African.
He said the man's name was Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko.
He called him Baba.
Miami's mystery man may be a mystery no longer. For more than a year Baba Sissoko charmed South Floridians with his lavish spending and calculated acts of charity. He bought condos on Brickell Key, purchased dozens of luxury automobiles in South Dade, and spent millions in the shops and boutiques of Bal Harbour. He gave $300,000 to Miami Central High School so its marching band could attend the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, donated $1.2 million to Camillus House, and once tipped a masseuse $10,000.
He did all of this while fighting a nasty legal battle with the U.S. Attorney's Office over his arrest for attempting to bribe a Customs agent who was holding up the transfer of helicopters from Miami to the tiny African nation of Gambia. Eventually he pleaded guilty to paying an illegal gratuity, spent 43 days in jail, and several weeks under house arrest before being deported this past November. His exploits were chronicled by local and national media, including New Times, which published three stories about him between September and November 1997.
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.
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.
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."
According to Ellison, Ayyoub believed Sissoko had special powers and could use black magic to control individuals around him. Ayyoub described one encounter in which Sissoko applied some sort of potion to Ayyoub's skin. "It was left on him until it dried and then he was told to take a shower," recalls Ellison. "His version of events is that ever since that happened he always did what Sissoko told him to do."
Ayyoub also claimed that Sissoko hung a black glass ball from the ceiling of Ayyoub's bedroom. According to Ayyoub, Sissoko said he could watch Ayyoub through that ball and would know everything the banker was doing.
Sissoko then explained that he was about to embark on certain business ventures and needed Ayyoub to provide him the necessary funds. He assured Ayyoub that he could make the money reappear any time he wanted and that he would add an appropriate profit for the bank. The spellbound Ayyoub agreed and followed Sissoko's instructions.
During the next two and a half years, Ellison explains, Sissoko would either meet with or call Ayyoub whenever he needed money: "Sissoko began each conversation with the words, 'Baba here,' or 'Baba speaking.'" Once Ayyoub heard Sissoko's voice and those words, he did whatever Sissoko wanted.
From August 1995 until January 1998, 183 separate wire transfers were made between Dubai and the United States. The smallest individual transaction was $42,000; the largest $966,000. Court and bank records show that during those two and a half years, money from the Dubai Islamic Bank was transferred to the following U.S. institutions:
*Citibank in New York received $37.2 million, which was deposited into an account bearing Sissoko's name
*Barnett Bank in Miami received $26.5 million, which was deposited into an account under the name Abdou Karim Pouye, who has been described by Sissoko's attorneys as his chief financial officer overseeing daily operations of Sissoko's businesses
*City National Bank in Miami received $10.7 million for an account in Pouye's name
*Commercebank National Association in Miami received $400,000 for an account in Pouye's name
In Switzerland Sissoko's preferred bank was Banque Multi Commerciale, in Geneva. Ellison says it received nearly $68 million. He also used the Geneva branch of New York-based Citibank for about $2 million in transfers. On the Isle of Man, located off the coast of England, $150,000 was deposited into an account at Barclays Bank.
In addition, tens of millions in cash turned up missing from the Dubai Islamic Bank. "As I understand it," Ellison relates, "the sum of money that left the bank in cash was $80 million. It was carried out over time in bags. They were plastic bags and they had the name of a local supermarket on them. That's literally what was used."
Ayyoub apparently transferred the money to Sissoko without receiving any clearance from his superiors at the bank. "There are no loan documents, no loan agreements. He just gave him the money," Ellison says, adding that Ayyoub was able to hide the transactions by falsifying bank ledgers with the help of the institution's chief accountant, Hussein El Refaie.
Hussain Mohamed Salim, the Abu Dhabi bank manager Ayyoub had called for help, stated in a sworn affidavit that he interviewed Refaie, and the accountant admitted receiving money from Ayyoub in a series of payments totaling about $52,000. Refaie reportedly told Salim the money was given to him to help the poor, but Salim stated in his affidavit that he believed it was a bribe to buy Refaie's help and silence. (The affidavit is included in court papers filed by Richey to freeze Sissoko's various bank accounts in the United States.)
Ellison says he is also trying to determine why the bank's outside accountants, Ernst & Young, failed to discover any irregularities in the bank's bookkeeping during its annual audits. "In December they gave the bank a clean bill of health," Ellison notes. "That's one of the issues we are working on."
In the end, it was an inquisitive auditor from the UAE's Central Bank -- which plays a role similar to the Federal Reserve Board in the United States -- that ultimately exposed the fraud. During its own annual review, after the Ernst & Young audit, something just didn't seem right to the government bureaucrat reviewing the bank's books, Ellison reports: "He would ask a series of questions and Ayyoub and Refaie would answer, and the auditor was never satisfied with the answers he was given." When it appeared that the auditor was going to keep digging and was on the verge of discovering the truth, Ayyoub contacted Salim and the other bank officials.
If the tales of black magic aren't to be believed, then the question is why did Ayyoub do it? "It is something nobody quite understands," Ellison shrugs. "Ayyoub was effectively the chief executive of the bank, on a good salary. He had a family, a big tribe of kids, a new house -- he shouldn't have been under any financial pressure at all. And yet he throws it all away by organizing and orchestrating what must be one of the world's largest bank robberies." So far, Ellison adds, Ayyoub has admitted receiving one car from Sissoko, although seven additional automobiles were found at his house. But there is no evidence to suggest Ayyoub received any of the cash.
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.
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.
That single act garnered him a priceless amount of favorable publicity from the Miami Herald and local television stations. The remarkable story of the generous African was picked up by national news media and spread across the nation. Soon tales of his generosity were cropping up all over town. A woman told reporters that Sissoko had just bought her a Range Rover. Other people talked about how he handed out hundred-dollar bills to homeless people.
Unreported by the Herald and local television stations, however, were the accounts of people who had worked for Sissoko's fledgling airline. Last year several of them told New Times horror stories about being abused and mistreated by Sissoko's airline managers. They complained that they had been held against their will, hadn't been paid for months, and that his planes were unsafe to fly.
In addition, the Herald never reported Sissoko's heavy-handed attempts to have the bribery charges against him dropped. In addition to a team of powerful local attorneys, he also employed former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh to pressure Justice Department officials. During the process, Bayh and others sought to destroy the reputations of the prosecutors in Miami who were handling the criminal case.
Sissoko even enlisted the support of several current members of Congress, most notably Jacksonville's Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), who personally spoke to Attorney General Janet Reno on Sissoko's behalf. Brown's actions have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, after the St. Petersburg Times reported that, following Brown's contact with Reno, her daughter received a $60,000 Lexus from Pouye, Sissoko's chief financial officer.
Ellison says it appears the money used to purchase that car came from the Dubai Islamic Bank. In Ellison's opinion, Representative Brown's conduct in the Sissoko case has been "highly immoral and a breach of her duty to her constituents." Brown has denied she did anything wrong.
Ellison had looked forward to going after the car given to Brown's daughter, but earlier this month, as a result of the controversy, the car was sold and the proceeds donated to a Washington charity.
Sissoko did not leave his fate completely in the hands of attorneys and bureaucrats. Perhaps conjuring up some of those same forces he may have used on Ayyoub, Sissoko attempted to use black magic to make the bribery case disappear. According to Ewa Adamek, a former member of Sissoko's Miami entourage, he arranged for evil spells to be cast over the prosecutors and presiding judge. Adamek says she was asked by one of Sissoko's aides to carefully spell their names over the telephone for a woman in Africa, who then delivered the names to a remote village in Mali, where a prayer service was conducted. "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-color water were brought to Miami by courier from Africa. Some of the powders were surreptitiously spread around the downtown federal courthouse before the 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-color water, Sissoko was instructed to wash behind his ears with it twice a day to stave off any danger 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."
Sissoko spent 43 days in jail and had begun serving the remainder of his time under house arrest on Brickell Key when U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore abruptly decided he could go home. As New Times reported this past November, Moore had secretly orchestrated a $1.2 million donation from Sissoko to Camillus House earlier that month. Within 48 hours of Sissoko's writing the check to the homeless center, Moore signed an order permitting him to leave the country, even though three months remained on his sentence. At the time, Moore was criticized by legal experts for creating the perception that Sissoko bought his way out of confinement.
Now it seems Sissoko did it with someone else's money.
Since being hired four months ago, Rob Ellison has pored over Sissoko's canceled checks and credit card statements for purchases he made in the United States, and he confirms that the tales of his exorbitant spending were no myth.
In addition to approximately a dozen cars he bought in Miami for his attorneys and other supporters, Sissoko also purchased 74 automobiles he loaded into cargo containers and had shipped by freighter to Africa. Bank records, included in court papers filed in Miami, show that he charged millions on his Visa credit card at Miami shops, mostly in Bal Harbour. At Mayor's jewelers alone, for example, Sissoko spent $3.4 million between August 1996 and January 1998. He spent $471,000 at Escada Boutique, a women's clothing store; $575,000 at Cartier; $160,000 at Saks Fifth Avenue; $275,000 at Pratesi Linens; and $125,000 at Tiffany.
"He would go to the Bal Harbour mall and would spend tens of thousands of dollars in each of these stores at a time," Ellison says. "He was like a kid in a candy store -- grabbing stuff off the shelves and giving it to his friends. It's easy to be extravagant, it's easy to be generous, it's easy to be charismatic under these conditions. I could probably be quite charismatic as well with $242 million of other people's money."
As the hunt for Sissoko's money continues, the search for the man himself also proceeds. He is believed to be in Africa, probably Gambia, but his precise whereabouts are unknown. In addition to the arrest warrants in the Middle East and Switzerland, and the investigation into possible money-laundering offenses in the United States, Ellison reveals, U.S. immigration officials have been trying to find Sissoko in order to question him about allegations that he has re-entered the country using phony names and passports. Under the terms of his sentence in the bribery case, Sissoko was barred from returning to the United States without written permission from the attorney general.
"There are a lot of people trying very hard to find him," Ellison says. "We anticipate that he will eventually be found. There are too many people looking for him now for him to just disappear.