Buying Trouble

updated 08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/04/1997 01:00AM

IF YOU SEE THIS MAN COMING YOUR way, smile. Since arriving in Miami last November, Foutanga Dit Babani Sissoko, 51, a dual citizen of Mali and Gambia, has been passing out cash as freely as candy. In January, while purchasing half a dozen Range Rovers, Sissoko noticed a woman about to sign a contract on a $52,000 4x4 and added her car to his $348,000 tab. In March he wrote a $300,000 check so a high school band could attend Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. At night he hands out money to the homeless from his chauffeur-driven Mercedes.

When Sissoko extended his largesse to a U.S. Customs agent, however, the federal government wasn't so grateful. On Jan. 16, Sissoko pleaded guilty to offering what he calls a $25,000 "gratuity" to a federal official to help him get a license to export two Vietnam-era helicopters to Gambia. Since the country's government came to power in a 1994 military coup, prosecutors suspect the choppers were for military use, a charge that Sissoko denies. In February, Gambia petitioned the federal court to recognize Sissoko as a diplomat, immune to prosecution. That failed, and now he faces 41 days in a federal lockup.

Born into a humble Mali farming family, Sissoko is celebrated for his generosity back home. The source of his riches is unclear, however, though his three U.S. lawyers cite interests in diamonds, hotels and an airline. Freed on $20 million bail, he awaits his sentence in an $80,000-a-month condo complex in Miami's Brickell Key, surrounded by two of his four wives and a large entourage. Saint or scoundrel, his impact has been undeniable. "He just felt like he was giving us a little something," says Anthony Gamble, 17, a drum major for the Miami Central High School Marching Rockets. "He doesn't realize that he made our whole next year."

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