A disbarred attorney from Yorktown was charged Thursday with stealing approximately $1 million that had been awarded to a September 11, 2001 first responder that he represented.
Gustavo Vila, 62, could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of the charge of theft of government funds. The complaint was unsealed September 3 in White Plains federal court before United States Magistrate Judge Paul E. Davison by Audrey Strauss, Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Kenneth R. Dieffenbach, Special Agent in Charge of the Fraud Detection Office of the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General.
“Vila allegedly attempted to profit off of the suffering of a retired NYPD officer who risked his life at Ground Zero,” Dieffenbach stated. “Because of Vila’s alleged greed, the victim never received about $1 million he was awarded from the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.”
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress created the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) to provide compensation with federal government funds to any individual who suffered physical harm or was killed as a result of the terrorist attacks, or as a result of the debris removal efforts that took place in the immediate aftermath of those attacks. The original VCF operated from 2001-2004. President Obama and President Trump reactivated the VCF, authorizing it to operate through October 2016, and December 2020, respectively. Claimants seeking compensation from the VCF were authorized to work with an attorney and have the attorney, on the claimant’s behalf, submit a claim to, and receive the claimant’s award from, the VCF.
According to the complaint, from about 2012 to 2019, Vila represented a retired New York City Police Department Officer in connection with the victim’s claim for compensation from VCF. The officer was diagnosed with, and suffered from, serious, life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer, as a result of rescue and recovery work he performed at Ground Zero. Throughout his representation, Vila held himself out as an attorney, despite the fact that in 2015, Vila was disbarred.
In May 2013, Vila submitted a claim to VCF on behalf of the officer. Vila also submitted forms to the VCF authorizing the VCF to deposit the officer’s compensation award directly into a bank account controlled by Vila’s law firm. On September 13, 2016, the VCF authorized an award to the officer of approximately $1,030,622.04.
On October 12, 2016, the VCF deposited the full amount of the officer’s award into the bank account. According to Strauss, Vila was required to distribute all of the money, less 10% for his purported attorney’s fees, to officer. However, Vila allegedly did not distribute any of the money to officer or otherwise inform him about this deposit. Instead, Vila allegedly kept almost the entire amount of that award for himself and used that money for his own personal benefit, including to pay his own taxes.
From October 2016 to February 2020, Vila falsely represented to his client that the VCF had not yet released the majority of the VCF award, when in fact, the entire award had been released.
“Vila allegedly lied to his client, telling the client for more than three years that the money Vila stole had yet to be released by the Fund,” Strauss stated. “Further, Vila lied to his client about his standing, continuing to hold himself out as an attorney even after he had been disbarred.”