9/11 cancer victim gets help after his attorney absconds with $1 million settlement

Firefighters and police officers honor the memory of those lost on 9-11, including those who have died of related cancer and illness from the recovery efforts. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

A retired police officer suffering from 9/11 related cancer is receiving assistance from a New York City attorney after he was allegedly ripped off for his Victims Compensation settlement by his attorney.

That attorney, Gustavo Vila of Westchester County, was arrested last Friday by U.S. marshals for the theft of more than a million dollars in settlement money from the retired cop. Vila himself is a former police officer, officials said.

Attorney Michael Barasch, of Barasch & McGarry, is seeking $400,000 from the New York Lawyers Fund to help the retired officer, now living in New Jersey, but is suffering his second bout of cancer due to his exposure at the recovery process at the World Trade Center after the September 11 attack. The fund is made up of interest money contributed by each attorney in the state when they are holding money in escrow for a client.

Vila was arrested by Federal Marshals in his home for allegedly stealing the money awarded from the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund. Vila was obligated to disburse it to his client. Instead, Vila allegedly told his client that he had not yet received the funds, nearly four years after it had been awarded.

Disbarred attorney Gustavo Vila.

Barasch said his pro-bono client, who he could not name at this time because of the pending criminal case and at the request of the US Attorney of the Southern District, was “heartbroken” when he learned that the attorney had allegedly taken the money and had been disbarred for similar wrongdoing in 2016.

Michael Barasch with the law firm of Barasch McGarry gave out food to hospital workers in May. (Photo by Todd Maisel)

“They have been waiting since 2015 and he so he called the Victims Compensation fund and they told him the money was paid four years ago – he and his wife started crying,” Barasch said.  “I was so outraged that an attorney could do this to community let alone client.”

Barasch said the retired police officer has been suffering from various cancers due to his exposure and presence during the recovery operations from the 9/11 attack and only received $100,000 of the money since the settlement.

“When I heard from the client, I called FBI agents that I know and they brought this to the US attorney,” Barasch said, adding that his client then went to speak to Vila while wearing a wire and “we got plenty of ammo.”

“He made lots of promises and it was one excuse after another – he said he was good for it, and it finally came down to the US Attorney finally pressing charges – so no matter what he says now, he is a liar.”

Barasch said he was confident that the Lawyers Fund would provide the funds for the retired officer, the fund created for just such attorney maleficence.

“I have a right to go to the Lawyers Fund, this is money from interest paid out of interest on escrow, and I believe we will get $400,000 for him as he is a victim of attorney theft. Not all lawyers are bad, but that is what this money is here for.”

The filing by the US Attorney says Vila filed on behalf of his client in May 2013 and then received the settlement on October 12, 2016. The money was deposited in the account controlled by Vila’s law firm and he was required to then disburse the money to the retired cops, less 10 percent for the legal fee. Instead, the court papers say he used the money for his own personal use, including paying his income taxes.

Vila also continued to claim he was an attorney, when in fact he had been disbarred in 2015 for an unrelated theft of client money. He is now charged with theft of government funds, punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

Barasch said he expects Vila to take a plea deal, at which point Federal Authorities will seek restitution for the victim.

“This is one of the sadder stories I’ve heard – he’s had two cancers already – so I hope to get him at least half of that money right now from the Lawyers Fund,” Barasch said. “I can’t imagine that he (Vila) won’t take a plea deal, then we will find out if he can repay or make restitution. It will certainly go easier for him if he can, but he will still face some prison. But I have a feeling he doesn’t have the money anymore, otherwise he would’ve already paid off his clients.”

It was not known if this is the only 9/11 victim taken for their settlements by this attorney and the investigation is continuing. Vila is free on bond pending continuing court appearances. He could not be reached for comment.

Barasch’s firm currently represents about 20,000 people in seeking funds or have received settlements from the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund.

It’s not the first 9/11 Victim Compensation scam reported either. In 2016,  Jaime Amoroso, who’s husband was Port Authority Police Officer Christoper Amoroso killed on 9/11, she turns to trusted family friend and broker, Kevin Dunn, to manage the money she receives from the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund — only to be scammed out of nearly $250,000. That story was featured on American Greed. Other victims were also scammed by other unscrupulous attorneys and money managers, resulting in arrests over the years.