Bye-Bye, Baba

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."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede