Disbarred New York Attorney Pleads Guilty to Stealing 9/11 Victim Compensation Funds

November 2, 2020

A disbarred attorney based in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., has pled guilty in White Plains federal court to stealing government funds.

Gustavo L. Vila’s plea results from his theft of approximately $1 million that the U.S. Department of Justice’s 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund (VCF) had awarded to the defendant’s client, a 9/11 first responder. Vila was initially arrested on September 3, 2020, and pled guilty on October 29 before U.S. District Judge Vincent L. Briccetti.

In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Congress created the 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 to 2004. President Barack Obama and President Donald 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. Attorney’s fees were limited to 10% of a VCF award.

According to the complaint, the information, and other statements made in open court, from at least 2012 through at least 2019, Vila represented a retired New York City Police Department officer in connection with his claim for compensation from VCF.

The client was diagnosed with serious, life-threatening medical conditions, including cancer, as a result of rescue and recovery work he performed at Ground Zero. Throughout his representation of the client, Vila held himself out as an attorney to the client and to VCF despite the fact that in 2015, Vila was disbarred.

Around May 2013, Vila submitted a claim to VCF on behalf of the client. Vila also submitted forms to the VCF authorizing it to deposit the client’s compensation award directly into a bank account controlled by Vila’s law firm.

Around September 13, 2016, the VCF authorized an award to the client of $1,030,622.04 for life-threatening illnesses that he sustained from rescue and recovery work he performed as a police officer at Ground Zero.

On October 12, 2016, the VCF deposited the full amount of the client’s award – more than $1 million – into the bank account. At that point, Vila was required to distribute all of that money, with the exception of 10 percent for his purported attorney’s fees, to the client.

Vila, however, did not inform the client about this deposit and kept 90% of the award – $927,559.84 – for himself. Vila used the money he stole for his own personal benefit, including to pay his own taxes.

From around October 2016 to around February 2020, Vila falsely represented to the client that the VCF had not yet released the majority of his VCF award, when the entire award had actually been released in October 2016.

Vila pled guilty to one count of theft of government funds, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. The maximum potential sentence in this case is prescribed by U.S. Congress and is provided for informational purposes only, as any sentencing of the defendant would be determined by the judge.

Vila will be sentenced on February 5, 2021. The prosecution of this case is being handled by the Office’s General Crimes Unit. Assistant United States Attorney Sarah L. Kushner is in charge of the prosecution.

Source: United States Department of Justice

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