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Benefactor Accused of Voodoo Economics

Tycoon: Malian rained money on Miami, but a banker blames black magic.

August 17, 1998|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — 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.

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