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.

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.

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.

The head of customs in Washington, Raymond Kelly, has taken a personal interest in the Sissoko case, according to one federal source. In December when the U.S. Customs attache in Rome learned that the head of the forfeiture division for Miami's U.S. Attorney's Office was vacationing in Italy, he tracked her down and pleaded for a meeting so he could pitch the Sissoko case to her in person.

Eventually prosecutors in Miami were persuaded to take a second look at the matter. A new pair of prosecutors, separate from the ones who originally prosecuted Sissoko in 1997, began reviewing the evidence. By the time the new team had returned from Dubai this past month, they felt confidant a case should be pursued.

Although Sissoko will be the principal subject of the investigation, the grand jury will also examine the relationship Sissoko had with certain banks in Miami and whether those institutions followed federal rules regarding the transfer of large sums of money.

Ellison says at least one bank in Miami appeared to do its job properly. "Commerce Bank's conduct was beyond reproach," he offers. "When the account was opened, officials there took all the right steps to try and know their customer. They took all the right steps to satisfy themselves as to the source of the funds and to make sure it came from legitimate sources. And when they were not so satisfied, and when they felt [Sissoko] was withdrawing far too much money in cash, they closed out the account. And this was all in the matter of a few weeks." Other banks, such as Barnett (now NationsBank), Ellison says, were not as responsive. "What that might mean for them," he says, "I do not know."

jim_defede@miaminewtimes.com

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