By Terrence McCoy
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New Times has also obtained a copy of a canceled check for $20,000 written by Pouye on March 15, 1997, to Miami City Commissioner Art Teele. (Teele was not a city commissioner when the check was issued.) Following his election in November 1997, Teele filed a financial disclosure form, and though Pouye's name does not appear on it as a source of income during 1997, it did list "The Governments of The Gambia and Togo regarding Swiss Law/Diplomatic Immunity RE: Sissoko."
At one point in 1997, Sissoko's attorneys claimed that the West African businessman enjoyed diplomatic immunity as an emissary of the Togo and Gambian governments and therefore could not be prosecuted. Teele, a lawyer, says he acted "strictly as a legal advisor" for the African nations on the diplomatic immunity issue. He says the check from Pouye was handed to him by the ambassador of Togo, and as far as he was concerned the payment came from the Togo government. He says he does not recall ever meeting Pouye and was unaware the source of the money was actually Sissoko or that Sissoko had apparently stolen the money. "The fact that [Sissoko] may have been paying the bills, however, doesn't shock me," Teele adds, as the immunity work was being done on Sissoko's behalf.
Another beneficiary of Sissoko's largess was television actor Sherman Hemsley of The Jeffersons, who appeared in federal court on at least one occasion in a show of solidarity with Sissoko. Hemsley, according to copies of checks reviewed by New Times, received $40,000 from Pouye between October 20, 1997 and November 19, 1997. (Calls to Hemsley's agent in California went unanswered.)
The checks to Teele and Hemsley were uncovered as a result of a lawsuit filed this past summer by the Dubai Islamic Bank against Sissoko in Miami-Dade County. Attorneys for the Middle Eastern bank have spent the past eight months culling thousands of pages of subpoenaed records from U.S. bank accounts controlled by Sissoko. Miami attorney Alan Fine says the documents have shed additional light on Sissoko's sojourn in South Florida.
When Sissoko was first brought to Miami, Fine notes, the Herald and other media outlets trumpeted the support and respect Sissoko received from Africa's diplomatic corps in Washington, some of whom flew to Miami to attend hearings and speak on Sissoko's behalf. By tracing bank records, Fine says, it is now apparent that nearly every person who testified in support of Sissoko received money from him.
One of Sissoko's diplomatic boosters was Pascal Akoussoulelou Bodjona, then the commercial attache for Togo in Washington. Today Bodjona is Togo's ambassador to the United States. According to Fine bank records show that Sissoko released nearly $1.9 million to Bodjona from a private account Sissoko maintained at Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C.
The ambassador denies there is anything sinister about the transactions. In an interview with New Times, Bodjona said he was merely assisting Sissoko and none of the money went into his own pocket. According to the ambassador, because Sissoko was under a court order not to leave the Miami area while his 1997 criminal case was pending, Sissoko would, from time to time, send him to Riggs Bank to make withdrawals. Afterward, Bodjona said, he would either turn over the money to one of Sissoko's minions or personally deliver it to Sissoko in Miami.
"If he needed $100,000 or $50,000, he would contact the bank and have them give the money to me," Bodjona explained. "I was only trying to help him. I don't have anything to hide. I acted properly. My accounts are there and they can look at them for themselves. I kept none of the money."
The lawsuit against Sissoko in Miami-Dade County, brought by Fine and co-counsel William Richey on behalf of the Dubai Islamic Bank, is entering its final phase. Sissoko has refused to defend himself against the suit and in February a default order was entered in favor of the bank. A hearing will be scheduled in the coming months to determine the extent of the damages awarded to the bank. Once that judgment has been completed, Fine and Richey can begin liquidating whatever Sissoko assets remain in the United States.
They can also attempt to go after some of the gifts Sissoko gave to people in South Florida, including the luxury cars he bought for his criminal defense attorneys. They may even try to recover the money paid to Teele and Hemsley. Attorneys for the bank, however, have said they will not ask Camillus House or the marching band to return the donations to their causes.
On another legal front, a federal lawsuit was filed this past month by the Dubai Islamic Bank against Citibank in Manhattan. More than $150 million of the money allegedly embezzled by Sissoko was initially routed into the United States through Citibank. The lawsuit alleges that Citibank should have suspected wrongdoing on the part of Sissoko and alerted authorities in both the United States and in the United Arab Emirates to Sissoko's actions. The complaint alleges that "Citibank, through its officers, management, agents, and employees, knowingly participated in the conspiracy to steal funds from" the Dubai Islamic Bank.