Closing in on Baba

The lawsuit notes that shortly after opening his Citibank account in 1995, Sissoko married one of the bank's tellers, Mona Searles. ("Searles became interested in him one day while she was helping him count money," says bank examiner Rob Ellison, adding that Sissoko, a Muslim, is known to have several wives around the world.)

According to the lawsuit, Searles and another woman at the bank ultimately helped Sissoko launder money stolen from Dubai. More than $500,000 was routed, the suit claims, to Searles's personal Citibank account. Both the marriage to Searles and the sudden flow of cash to her personal account should have been detected by Citibank, the suit argues.

A spokesman for Citigroup, the bank's parent company, says the lawsuit is baseless. "It is unfortunate that Dubai Islamic Bank failed to uncover their own internal fraud by high-level executives, as they have acknowledged publicly," Michael Schlein says. "This suit is a desperate attempt by Dubai Islamic Bank to recover funds following that failure." He says all of Citibank's actions were proper and that as soon as the company suspected irregularities in Sissoko's banking practices, "Citibank took all appropriate steps and closed his account."

Amid this international turmoil, Baba Sissoko lives seemingly unfazed in his home country of Mali. Since returning to Africa, he purchased a house that was formerly the South Korean embassy in Mali, and a mansion, which Sissoko is renovating. The mansion has upward of twenty bedrooms and a dining room that can seat 40 people. "He's not just living openly but living flamboyantly," Ellison says, "in the same sort of style he was used to on Brickell Key."

Only a few Mali officials have distanced themselves from Sissoko since the scandal broke. The country's prime minister returned a Lexus given to him by Sissoko when it was reported in the press that the car may have been purchased with stolen money. Sissoko, however, still enjoys widespread support among political leaders in the country, including the vice president of the national assembly. (A review of Sissoko's credit card records, Ellison says, might provide some insight. He notes that Sissoko has purchased numerous airline tickets for the vice president over the past year.)

In September the UAE government made a formal request of Mali authorities to arrest Sissoko and extradite him to Dubai. The Mali government refused.

This current chapter in Sissoko's life may not be the first time he's run afoul of the law. Investigators are pursuing allegations that in the early Nineties, Sissoko was arrested and briefly jailed in Morocco. "This was related to some kind of scam relating to his connections with Gabon," says Ellison, who is still seeking confirmation from officials in Casablanca, where Sissoko allegedly was detained. "One of his wives at one time was the sister-in-law of President Bongo of Gabon." Sissoko may have tried to exploit his ties to the ruling family and gotten into trouble in Morocco as a result, Ellison speculates.

The criminal investigation now under way in Miami has followed its own circuitous route. After the money was discovered missing in Dubai last spring, the UAE government requested assistance from the U.S. Justice Department. A few months later representatives of the Dubai Islamic Bank asked the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami to begin its own money-laundering investigation of Sissoko.

The initial response, however, was tepid. Prosecutors in Miami had just finished a grueling year of legal battles with Sissoko and his lawyers over the helicopter/bribery case. Sissoko was already out of the country and prosecutors saw little merit in launching a new probe of the millionaire. Besides, prosecutors noted, before proving a money-laundering case in the United States, they would have to first prove the money was stolen. As far as prosecutors were concerned, this was a case for the authorities in Dubai to handle on their own.

That lackadaisical approach did not sit well with government officials in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi. When the money was first discovered missing from the Dubai Islamic Bank, it caused panic; citizens began a run on the bank that threatened to spill over to the country's other financial institutions. In only a few days, more than $545 million was withdrawn from personal accounts as people stood in line for hours to remove their money. The government eventually had to loan the bank nearly half a billion dollars.

The entire affair remains an embarrassing episode for UAE officials, and they were not inclined to be forgiving. According to several sources both here and in the Middle East, the UAE government pressured American officials through diplomatic channels to take seriously their request for judicial assistance. Although a relatively small country, the United Arab Emirates is strategically located on the Persian Gulf and has been a long-standing ally of the United States. The fact that this was an important issue for UAE officials meant American officials couldn't ignore it.

Just as important, however, was the fact that, behind the scenes, senior U.S. Customs officials were also pushing to open a new criminal investigation of Sissoko. The original prosecution of Sissoko on the bribery charges was a customs case, and Sissoko's lawyers had sought to embarrass the agency at every turn during the proceedings. Customs officials also resented Sissoko's efforts to buy his way out of trouble in the United States.

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