A disbarred Westchester County lawyer and former NYPD Detective has admitted in court that he stole more than $900,000 from a former police colleague whose 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund claim he handled.
Gustavo L. Vila 62, of Yorktown Heights, pleaded guilty in Federal Court Oct. 29 to one count of theft of government funds.
In his online professional profile, he said he was a former Lieutenant and claimed to have been an adviser to then-Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.
Lied About Money's Release
"As he admitted today, Gustavo Vila stole money awarded by the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund to his client, an NYPD officer and 9/11 first responder, and falsely told the client for more than three years that the stolen money had yet to be released by the Fund," Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.
According to prosecutors, from 2012, through about 2019, Mr. Vila represented John Ferreyra, a retired city cop who contracted cancer due to his rescue-and-recovery work at the World Trade Center site.
He received Mr. Ferreyra's VCF award of $1,030,622 on Sept. 13, 2016, but passed on just $100,000 to his client, pocketing the rest.
Mr. Ferreyra was unaware that Mr. Vila was disbarred in 2015 after being convicted in a state case of an unrelated theft.
'Absolute Trust in Him'
"I was waiting for so long—I had absolute trust in him that he would help me through this," Mr. Ferreyra told reporters outside the courthouse. "When I did the original filing with the VCF, I had just been through my stem-cell transplant that was life saving, because I literally thought I was on death's door."
He continued, "But when I came to find out that he was actually disbarred in 2015, I was beside myself, and then to find out that the entire amount had been paid out to him in 2016...And here I thought he was being generous in giving me my 10 percent, and he actually stole the rest of it for himself."
In fact, the VCF limits the amount that lawyers can be compensated for their work on claims to 10 percent of the client's final award. Claimants are not required to hire a lawyer.
After years of being lied to by Mr. Vila, Mr. Ferreyra sought out 9/11 claims specialist Michael Barasch, who checked the status of his claim and learned it had been paid out more than three years earlier.
Lawyers Fund Pays $400G
At a press conference tied to the court proceeding, Mr. Barasch, who handled the case for free, announced that the New York Lawyers Fund for Client Protection was granting the former NYPD officer $400,000, the highest amount the professional trust can award.
The fund is financed by a $30-per-year contribution from the attorney-registration fee paid by all New York State lawyers. In 2018, the Lawyers' Fund granted 164 awards totaling $6.9 million in reimbursement to eligible law clients of 64 now suspended, disbarred or deceased lawyers.
"We are not going to rest on this by the way," Mr. Barasch said. "We are going to go after this guy. If he has a house, we are going to get it. And if there's anybody who used this guy out there, please double-check your accounts. Make sure you received everything you are entitled to."
In a phone interview, he said that he was initially puzzled as to why Mr. Ferreyra waited three years before asking a second attorney about the status of his VCF claim.
Trusted Wrong Ex-Colleague
"He told me he was a cop and that he had known him as a police officer for 20 years," Mr. Barasch said.
In 2011, retired U.S. Navy Commander Charles Coughlin was convicted of defrauding the VCF of more than $300,000. While he was physically present at the Pentagon during the attack, he falsely claimed to suffer from chronic neck pain, headaches, and left-side numbness and weakness. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 months in Federal prison.
According to the VCF website, claims that were filed between January and March 2019 received award determinations last month. The VCF has received 56,983 claims and so far paid out $7.24 billion to roughly 38,000 claimants.
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