Closing in on Baba

Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko may be gone, but he is not forgotten. On January 12 a group of prosecutors and U.S. Customs agents gathered in Miami to discuss the mysterious West African millionaire, suspected of embezzling nearly $250 million from a Middle Eastern bank. Federal officials flew in from New York, Washington, and Rome for the conclave, as did representatives of the Dubai Islamic Bank, located in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As a result of those talks, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami launched a grand jury investigation into Sissoko's financial activities while he was in South Florida.

The primary focus of the probe are allegations of money laundering against Sissoko, who is currently living in the West African nation of Mali. But prosecutors are also expected to review the conduct of local bank officials, according to sources familiar with the inquiry.

Sissoko arrived in Miami in November 1996 in handcuffs after being arrested for attempting to bribe a customs agent who was holding up delivery of a pair of helicopters from Miami to the tiny African nation of Gambia. Sissoko was released on bond and eventually pleaded guilty to paying an illegal gratuity. He spent 43 days in jail and several weeks under house arrest before being deported to Africa in November 1997.

During the year he spent in Miami, Sissoko became a folk hero as a result of his extravagant spending and calculated acts of charity. He purchased dozens of luxury cars; gave $300,000 to Miami Central High School so its marching band could attend the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade; and bestowed $1.2 million on Camillus House, the venerable homeless shelter. (The Camillus donation was secretly orchestrated by U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore who 48 hours after the donation was made, allowed Sissoko to return home to Africa, even though he still had more than three months to serve under house arrest.)

It was only after Sissoko left the country that the illegal source of his wealth became known. This past month federal prosecutors and customs agents were dispatched to Dubai to coordinate their investigation with government officials in the United Arab Emirates. During their ten-day visit, prosecutors interviewed Mohammed Ayyoub Selah, a former Dubai Islamic Bank officer who allegedly helped Sissoko abscond with a quarter of a billion dollars of the bank's money. Ayyoub was arrested this past year after bank regulators in Dubai discovered the funds were missing. Ayyoub confessed and claimed that Sissoko had placed him under a spell, forcing him to transfer the money into Sissoko-controlled bank accounts around the world.

Ayyoub, who remains in custody in the Middle East, repeated those bizarre claims of black magic during his meeting this past month with U.S. prosecutors, according to knowledgeable sources in Dubai. The UAE government has agreed to turn over Ayyoub to U.S. authorities so they can fly him to Miami and have him appear before the federal grand jury investigating Sissoko. Ayyoub would then return to Dubai, where he is awaiting sentencing.

Sissoko is facing problems elsewhere around the world. Earlier this year law-enforcement officials in Paris opened a money-laundering investigation against him, according to Rob Ellison, a British bank examiner hired by the UAE government and the Dubai Islamic Bank to track down Sissoko and his assets. A similar investigation has been under way for nearly a year in Switzerland. In both instances authorities believe Sissoko used banks in those countries to hide the funds stolen from Dubai.

In addition one of Sissoko's most trusted confidants during his Miami stay, Abdou Karim Pouye, was arrested in Senegal nearly two months ago. Pouye oversaw most of Sissoko's personal finances and was considered the chief financial officer for several of his businesses. The UAE government requested Pouye's extradition from Africa, but Senegalese officials refused, agreeing instead to place Pouye on trial in their country. Prosecutors in Miami are expected to fly to Senegal soon to meet with Pouye as part of their probe.

Pouye's capture could be significant for investigators in the United States. He was the person who dealt one-on-one with banking officials in Miami; most of the bank accounts Sissoko held in South Florida were in Pouye's name. It was Pouye, for instance, who wrote the check in 1997 that paid for the $60,000 Lexus given to the daughter of U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville). At the time Brown was working feverishly on Sissoko's behalf, privately appealing to Attorney General Janet Reno to intercede in the case and keep Sissoko from going to prison. Brown's efforts failed, though they did raise ethical questions regarding her conduct. (A federal grand jury in Jacksonville has been examining the relationship between Sissoko and Brown.)

This past year, when the St. Petersburg Times reported that Brown's daughter had received a car from Sissoko, the congresswoman objected to any inference of wrongdoing and said the car was merely a gift from Pouye to her daughter Shantrel. She claimed Pouye and Shantrel had become friends, and that the car had nothing to do with the assistance she offered Sissoko.

Now that Pouye has been apprehended and is cooperating with authorities, federal prosecutors will likely ask him about the Lexus. Was it truly a gift from Pouye? Or did Sissoko instruct him to buy the car for the congresswoman's daughter as a way of thanking Brown for her extraordinary lobbying efforts? Ellison, the bank investigator, says that though Pouye has yet to be asked any specific questions about Corrine Brown, Pouye told authorities in Senegal that everything he did while he was in Miami was at the direction of Sissoko. "He says he was doing it all for Sissoko," Ellison reports.

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