Benefactor Accused of Voodoo Economics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the Miami Central High marching band, the money that appeared for new uniforms, instruments and airline tickets to New York so that they could strut their stuff in last year's Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade was nothing short of magic.

"We were blessed," said band director Shelby Chipman after West African millionaire Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko wrote out a check for $300,000 minutes after running into fund-raising band members playing dance tunes at a bar mitzvah in a downtown hotel.

Compared with the downpour of cash that Sissoko unleashed over Miami, that check was but a brief shower. During his 18 months here, the mysterious tycoon known as Baba may have spent upward of $40 million on waterfront real estate, expensive jewelry and fleets of luxury cars.

Though he lived well, Sissoko was also generous, often in an extravagant, random way. He donated $1.2 million to a Miami homeless shelter, tipped a masseuse $10,000 and bought each of his three Miami lawyers a $65,000 Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

The source of Sissoko's wealth isn't clear. Among the rags-to-riches myths: His fortune was made trading textiles in India. Or oil was found on land he owned in his native Mali. Sissoko once suggested he struck it rich as a laborer in the diamond mines of Liberia.

Now comes an equally astounding explanation for Sissoko's big bucks: black magic.

Keeping Tabs on the Money Man

In a civil complaint unsealed here last month, Sissoko, 53, is accused of embezzling $240 million from a Middle Eastern bank after bamboozling a bank officer with tribal voodoo. The banker "fell under Sissoko's control" and began illegally transferring money from the Dubai Islamic Bank to Sissoko's account, the suit alleges, after a black glass ball was hung over the banker's bed. Mohammed Ayyoub Mohammed Saleh "claims that Sissoko convinced him that Sissoko could use the glass ball to see what Saleh was doing," according to the bank's complaint.

The Justice and Treasury departments are investigating, as are officials in the United Arab Emirates and Switzerland, said Alan S. Fine, a Miami lawyer representing the bank. "This guy was a world-class con man," Fine said.

Among those shocked by that characterization are many in Miami and Washington who were wooed by the devoutly Muslim Sissoko's spiritual nature, as well as by his charitable instincts--he was once invited by Democrats to a White House fund-raiser.

Sissoko's Washington friends rallied to his aid in 1996 after he was accused of offering a bribe to a U.S. Customs Service official for help in exporting a pair of military helicopters. Former Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), now practicing law in Washington, tried to intervene at the Justice Department and the CIA. West African ambassadors to the United Nations attested to Sissoko's character, as did members of the Congressional Black Caucus. After U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) wrote letters on Sissoko's behalf to Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, Brown's daughter received a $60,000 Lexus from Sissoko's chief financial officer.

Eventually, Sissoko pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of authorizing payment of a $30,000 "illegal gratuity" to a Customs agent. He served 43 days in a South Florida prison camp and paid a $250,000 fine.

Now facing more serious legal problems, Sissoko has disappeared. He is believed to be somewhere in Africa, where he controls a Gambia-based airline, Air Dabia, and operates hotels, banks and gold mines. But his Miami lawyers haven't been able to reach him in weeks. And they're miffed.

"I have really been blindsided by this," said attorney Thomas R. Spencer. "This is nothing I could ever imagine or suspect."

Sissoko's remaining Miami assets, down to about $2 million, have been frozen. In Jacksonville, a federal grand jury is looking into the gift to Brown's daughter of the Lexus, which has been sold, the proceeds donated to charity. The band will be permitted to keep the uniforms, and the homeless shelter may not have to give back the money. But the lawyers' cars could be in jeopardy. "I think they are not going to be comfortable driving around in something purchased with stolen money," Fine said.

Admitting he does not know the details of the case against Sissoko, Spencer said he finds the allegations "bizarre and implausible."

"Human nature and banking being what it is, it is hard to understand how a person here in the U.S. for 18 months could effectively embezzle anything, black magic and magic orbs notwithstanding," he said.

Indeed, the tale of Sissoko's free-spending romp through America seems even more improbable when his curriculum vitae is examined. Born in a poor rural village in western Mali, Sissoko never attended school and is functionally illiterate. A devout Muslim, he prays several times a day in his native language, Bambara. He speaks no English and poor French, Spencer said.

Nonetheless, Sissoko is "incredibly charismatic, like a movie star. He is thin, about 6-foot-2, and he has the ability to take over a room, even without speaking the language," Spencer said. "Very spiritual, very impressive."

Astounding Popularity Born of Generosity

In November, after a judge freed Sissoko from house arrest following his release from prison in the bribery case, Spencer was one of several dozen Miamians invited to join Sissoko on the ride home in a chartered Boeing 747. After the nonstop flight from Miami to Bamako, Spencer said, Sissoko got off the plane in the Malian capital to a tumultuous welcome. Thousands turned up at the airport carrying welcoming signs and tossing flowers, and tens of thousands more lined the roads as his entourage made the 45-minute journey to his house in the hills.

Having built schools, hospitals and roads in Mali, Spencer said, Sissoko "is a god there."

With a penchant for blessing total strangers with cash and cars, Sissoko seemed like something of a beneficent deity to many Americans too. He caused a stir in 1995 when he flew into New York for a whirlwind shopping spree, spending millions on jewelry and cars and handing out $100 bills on the street. He flew three planeloads of wives, family and hangers-on to Atlantic City, N.J., for a night of gambling at a Donald Trump casino.

Sissoko's name popped up in Miami in August 1996, when two of his employees were arrested after Customs officials alleged they offered a bribe in lieu of the required export license for the two used helicopters, for which they had paid $270,000.

In monitored telephone calls between those employees and Sissoko, federal agents said they heard him authorize the bribe. A warrant for his arrest was issued, and Sissoko was picked up later that month by Interpol in Geneva.

In anticipation of Sissoko's coming to Miami, his representatives arrived to prepare the way. They bought several automobiles. They paid $3 million for five condominium apartments on Biscayne Bay and leased 10 apartments on the 26th floor of a high-rise across the street.

When Sissoko showed up in October 1996, he went straight to the federal courthouse, where he was arraigned on charges of bribery and export violations. His bond was set at $20 million, the highest ever in the southern district of Florida. He paid it within hours.

Over the next few months, Sissoko used his vast wealth to buy legal and political clout. In Miami, Spencer and other lawyers worked on an entrapment defense, while Bayh and friendly lawmakers argued in Washington that Sissoko was a special envoy of Gambia and thus enjoyed diplomatic immunity.

But Sissoko did not put all his faith in the American justice system. After tribal potions were brought in from West Africa, he ordered that a special powder be sprinkled around the courthouse. A violet-colored liquid was released into Biscayne Bay.

In January 1997, Sissoko pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of authorizing an illegal gratuity, and two months later was sentenced to serve four months in prison. But his attorneys continued to press for a dismissal of the bribery charge. In a final courthouse hearing in June, Sissoko supporters included the ambassadors of Gambia, Mali, Senegal and Togo; actor Sherman Helmsley, a star of "The Jeffersons" TV show; and several supporters of the South Florida Coalition to Free Babani Sissoko.

Even after Sissoko was sentenced to a minimum-security prison, his lawyers continued to argue that their client was a victim of cultural persecution. "In Sissoko's culture, not only is [giving gifts to government officials] legal, it is expected of a rich African chief," wrote H. T. Smith in an opinion piece in the Miami Herald.

A British investigator hired by the bank says the transfers of funds to Sissoko-controlled accounts in Europe and at Citibank in New York began in 1995 and continued until March 1998, when reports of the missing cash touched off a $500-million run on the Dubai bank.

"There is no documentation, nor has any witness indicated any business relationship between Sissoko and [the bank] that could possibly explain the outgoing transfers," Alan R. Ellison said in a court affidavit.

At least two Dubai bank officials, including the spellbound Saleh, are in custody, Fine said. "[Saleh] was stunned that the money wasn't coming back. Sissoko told him that he could make money come back and make it grow."

Authorities in Switzerland and Dubai would like to have a talk with Sissoko, who still controls as much as $80 million in stolen money, according to Fine. Also unhappy with Sissoko are several American pilots and flight attendants who worked for Air Dabia who say they are owed money and were forced to fly unsafe airplanes.

Worlds Could Collide If a Trial Is Held

If Sissoko faced criminal charges here again, his culture could again be on trial. "The idea of black magic may be foreign to the way we look at the world, but in Africa it is a major part of the belief system," Fine said. "Still, he was a con man who stole an amazing amount of money. And he got away with it for so long."

Spencer, who counts his five days with Sissoko in Mali as "one of the most incredible experiences I've ever had," said that even if the money that bought his Mercedes was stolen, he paid taxes on the car and will probably keep it.

But he is struggling with the notion of Sissoko as a thief.

"I've seen a lot of crooks here in Miami," said Spencer, in practice for 30 years. "Usually, they are self-indulgent. But this was a guy who got more pleasure out of giving than utilizing money himself.

"I have been out with him when he'd see some homeless person. He'd tell the driver, 'Stop the car,' and then go hand out money, $100 bills. He did that in Washington too.

"I'd really like to know the facts, just for my own satisfaction. But I suspect that we'll never know the real truth."

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