Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko's $1.2 million contribution to Camillus House last week was secretly orchestrated by U.S. District Court Judge K. Michael Moore and has raised questions about whether the West African millionaire made the supposedly voluntary donation in order to buy his way out of federal custody. Earlier this year Sissoko was sentenced by Moore to four months in jail and four months of home detention after Sissoko pleaded guilty for his role in a plan to smuggle a pair of helicopters out of the United States by bribing a Customs agent.
Forty-eight hours after Sissoko wrote the check to the Miami homeless center, Moore signed an order, over the objection of federal prosecutors, allowing him to return to his home in Gambia even though he still had three months to serve on the house-arrest portion of his sentence. Several days later Sissoko boarded a plane and quietly left the country. Moore's order requires Sissoko to complete his confinement in Africa, but prosecutors say compliance will be impossible to verify. In addition, they note, the wording of Moore's order allows Sissoko to come and go virtually at will, so monitoring him in Africa would be pointless.
Sissoko's attorney, Mark Schnapp, refused to discuss the matter. Moore also declined comment. Last week, in response to a question about the subject, a member of the judge's staff replied, "He doesn't want anybody to know about that."
But Brother Paul Johnson, executive director of Camillus House, confirms that the contribution was Judge Moore's idea. Based on his conversations with Schnapp, Johnson relays the following account of how the donation was conceived. (Johnson's recollections were confirmed by a source familiar with the case.)
According to Johnson, Sissoko wanted to return home immediately and Schnapp was looking for a way to transfer the remainder of his client's house-arrest time to Gambia. Last month Schnapp filed a motion asking Moore to allow Sissoko to return home, arguing that Sissoko was needed in Africa to direct humanitarian efforts in the region. Schnapp also noted in his motion that the president of Gambia had written to Pres. Bill Clinton asking for Sissoko's release. Both the size and source of Sissoko's wealth are unknown, but he has been credited with building schools and hospitals and with aiding refugees fleeing various strife-torn African countries.
While Moore was considering Schnapp's request, the judge suggested that Sissoko extend his altruism to a local cause. Schnapp responded by raising the possibility that Sissoko could donate money to a charity that would benefit children, according to Johnson, and said the donation would probably be in the range of $200,000 to $300,000.
At that point, Johnson says, the judge made it clear to Schnapp that he thought Sissoko could afford to donate a far greater sum. "The judge made the remark, 'Well, I'm thinking about one million dollars to something like Camillus House,'" Johnson explains. "The judge happened to say, 'to something like Camillus House.' That's how we ended up being so fortunate."
On Saturday, November 15, Schnapp took Sissoko to the homeless center in downtown Miami so Johnson could give him a tour of the facility. Accompanying Sissoko on the outing were one of his several wives, his brother, and several other members of his ever-present entourage. As Johnson guided the group, he explained some of the financial problems the charity was experiencing. He noted they were in the process of building a new center but that cost overruns during construction left them $200,000 short of completing the project.
Johnson also explained that a $500,000 deficit in operating expenses had forced Camillus House to lay off seventeen employees. Next Johnson went into some detail regarding the cost of food and medicine.
The Camillus House director says he was unaware Judge Moore had already suggested a dollar amount for Sissoko's contribution, but he did suspect that Sissoko was about to make a donation of some sort, perhaps for the $200,000 needed to finish the new clinic -- but he wasn't certain.
When the tour ended, Sissoko made a short speech before the Camillus House staff and repeated some of the figures Johnson had outlined. As Johnson listened, it began to sound as if Sissoko was going to provide money for all the items on his list, but he assumed Sissoko had misspoken, owing to his imperfect command of English.
Then Sissoko took out a checkbook and wrote two checks. Sissoko explained that the first, in the amount of one million dollars, was from him; the second, for $200,000, was from his wife. "I was in a total state of shock," Johnson says. "I was ecstatic."
In talking to Schnapp, Johnson says, he quickly learned of Judge Moore's role in prompting the donation and of Sissoko's desire to return home immediately. "When I learned that," Johnson recalls, "I asked myself, 'Was this ethical? Is this honest and just for the people of Miami?' I'm always concerned about protecting the reputation of Camillus House and I thought a great deal about this. And I do feel in my heart that this was both honest and just. The man wasn't ordered to do it. He could have decided not to write the check."
Monday morning, November 17, Johnson called Judge Moore and informed him of Sissoko's contribution. "I thanked him for mentioning Camillus House," Johnson recounts. "I told him I did not want to interfere with his decision in the case, but that I did want to thank him for his interest." Moore, who is not a member of the Camillus House board of directors and has never before been involved in fundraising for the charity, had little to say. The conversation ended quickly. That afternoon Moore signed the order allowing Sissoko to return home. "I really admire the judge for this," Johnson says.
Not everyone, however, believes the judge's intervention was appropriate. New York University Law School Professor Stephen Gillers, a nationally respected expert on judicial ethics, says Moore's actions were misguided and will leave the public with the impression that the wealthy can buy their way out of trouble. "In my opinion this episode was ill-advised," Gillers argues, "because it can only harm the rule of law and foster cynicism within the public. I understand the laudable purposes and goals the judge had, but I don't think that the judge should be in a position of bartering how he exercises his power."
The clear inference to draw in this case, Gillers says, is that because Sissoko made the contribution, Moore allowed him to go home. Even if the judge were now to say the contribution played no part in his decision and that he granted Sissoko's request based on legal merits alone, the public will be left to question the sincerity of that claim, Gillers notes.
This affair is particularly odious, he adds, because it broaches a sensitive issue -- the ability of the rich to sidestep responsibility. "We are repelled by the notion that a wealthy person can buy his way out of jail, and that is what occurred here," Gillers contends. "It makes no difference that this was house arrest, because house arrest is a form of incarceration. The public will infer that he got more lenient treatment as a result of the contribution orchestrated by the judge. The appearance of this is simply unacceptable. This sort of advantage should not be for sale."
The idea that Sissoko will now complete his house arrest in Gambia is ludicrous, Gillers declares, because once he is beyond the control of federal authorities, there will be no way to monitor his conduct. "This is the type of bargain that a poor man cannot make, but a rich man can," he adds.
On another level, Gillers says, it is not fair to Sissoko. Suppose Sissoko had refused to donate a million dollars to the charity of Moore's choosing? Any future action Moore would take that might adversely affect Sissoko, he says, could be seen as retribution. Sissoko may have felt he had no choice but to make the donation.
Gillers asserts that Moore may have violated two of the canons of judicial conduct that all federal judges pledge to support: "One of the canons is that a judge should uphold the integrity and the independence of the judiciary. The other is that a judge should avoid the appearance of impropriety in all activities. These are not rules that can result in discipline of the judge. A judge should simply adhere to them because they are the right things to do."
Camillus House's Brother Paul Johnson, though, maintains that society's best interests were served by the judge's actions. "Let's look at this in practical terms," he says. "This money means nothing to [Sissoko]. He has more money than Wayne Huizenga. So for him to give money to help the poor of this county makes more sense to me than having him sit in his condominium on Brickell Key for four months. I think this is more profitable to us as a society."
Johnson's biggest concern now, he says, is that members of the public will think Camillus House no longer needs their support. "The most important donors we have are the people who give $25 or $100," he says. "Those are the people who keep this place running, and we still need their help."
Johnson also expresses sympathy for Sissoko. Over the year that he has been in Miami, his business has suffered. He's been miserable, and he misses his homeland. Also, Johnson says, Sissoko now suffers from headaches and a stomach ulcer.
He may not be alone in that.
The prosecution of Baba Sissoko has caused headaches and stomach upset for just about everyone associated with it. He was captured during a questionable sting operation that resulted in a case that was arguably weak. But rather than confront the charges directly, Sissoko and his attorneys have continually sought to use influence rather than legal arguments. They hired former U.S. senator Birch Bayh to lobby members of Congress and to apply pressure to Justice Department officials in Washington in hopes of having the case dropped. Sissoko's supporters also mounted a campaign to slur the local prosecutors as racists.
The extralegal approach, however, only made prosecutors more obstinate. Schnapp, a former federal prosecutor himself, was brought into the case several months ago to ease tensions between the prosecution and defense teams. Schnapp was able to make little headway and was stymied by prosecutors in his efforts to negotiate an end to Sissoko's confinement in Miami.
Schnapp had no choice but to appeal to Judge Moore directly, which ultimately resulted in the donation to Camillus House. While no one has questioned Schnapp's efforts to make his client seem more sympathetic by promoting his philanthropic nature, the salient issue is Moore's decision to become actively involved.
Johnson says he is confident Moore knew that what he was doing was correct and proper. "In this country," he says, "if you get to be a federal judge, then you have a very good overview of what is right and what is wrong."
This is not the first time Moore's judgment has been questioned. In 1992 Moore was a target of a federal grand jury in Brooklyn, which was investigating allegations he had accepted gratuities -- including a trip on a chartered yacht, tickets to a New York Mets baseball game, and seats for the Broadway show *Cats -- from a company that did business with the U.S. Marshals Service while he served as its director from November 1989 until February 1992. Moore, who left the Marshals Service to become a federal judge, claimed that the gifts were part of "normal social hospitality" among old friends.
Moore's friend was John Caldara, one of the owners of a security company that in 1988 won a $115 million contract with the Marshals Service to provide metal detectors and guards at most federal courthouses nationwide. Caldara later confessed that he and his partners paid $75,000 in bribes to rig the selection process and guarantee that his company would submit the lowest bid. Moore had nothing to do with the bid-rigging incident, which took place a year before he became the service's director. But his choice of friends and his decision to accept gifts from a vendor certainly raised suspicions.
In June 1994, after almost two years of reviewing evidence, prosecutors in New York dropped their investigation of Moore. "A determination was made that no criminal charges will be sought," one Brooklyn official said at the time. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Moore's integrity.
The incident raised another problem for Moore. Defense attorneys throughout South Florida are now appealing criminal cases over which Moore presided while he was under investigation. The judge was informed by the FBI in June 1992 that he was the "subject" of a criminal investigation. He kept that information to himself and continued hearing cases. A year later, in October 1993, he was informed that he was the "target" of the investigation, defined by the U.S. Attorney's Manual as "a person whom the prosecutor has substantial evidence linking him to the commission of a crime.... a putative defendant."
Once he was identified as a target, Moore recused himself from trying criminal cases until he was cleared by prosecutors. But defense attorneys say he should have removed himself as soon as he learned he was the subject of an investigation. At the very least, they argue, he should have disclosed that fact to defense attorneys, who speculate that Moore, knowing he was under investigation by the Justice Department, may have tried to curry favor with prosecutors by ruling in their favor.
In September 1994, after reviewing the matter for several months, U.S. District Judge William C. O'Kelley of Atlanta agreed with the defense attorneys and ordered new trials for 24 defendants. "Quite simply, and quite universally, recusal is required whenever impartiality might reasonably be questioned," O'Kelley wrote. "When a member of the federal judiciary is under criminal investigation, he should recuse himself from hearing criminal matters, as the public might perceive him to be biased."
This past Friday, shortly after Sissoko had left Miami, the United States Attorney's Office filed a motion asking Moore to reverse his decision to allow Sissoko to go home before his house arrest is completed.
At the very least, prosecutors argued, if Moore wants to convert Sissoko's sentence to a form of community service, he should be ordered to "personally perform a substantial number of hours of community service (e.g., working at a charitable or nonprofit organization) before he can shift his 'home detention' to his homeland." The judge was out of town Friday and did not rule on the government's request.
As far as Sissoko performing community service, Brother Paul Johnson notes that on November 16 and 17, the Sunday and Monday after his generous donation, Sissoko returned to the shelter and served food for about six hours. His entourage came along to help. In fact, Camillus House normally does not serve food on Sunday, but Sissoko asked that the kitchen be opened. "He wanted it and he paid for it," Johnson says, "so we did it.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.