A disbarred attorney who stole 9/11 victims compensation funds from a cancer-stricken retired NYPD police officer, faced justice n Federal Court Thursday afternoon in Westchester County where he pleaded guilty to the theft.
Gustavo Vila, a former NYPD lieutenant, pleaded guilty to stealing $1 million from the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund from a retired Police officer John Ferreyra who retained him because he knew him from the department and trusted him – having been friends for almost 20 years. Vila was nabbed by federal authorities in September after he was fingered by attorney Michael Barasch, who’s firm, Barasch and McGarry, handles cases for thousands of rescue workers who were exposed to toxic dust.
“As much as I was victimized, I’m lucky to be standing here and I thank God every day,” said Ferreyra, who contracted non-Hodgkins lymphoma after having spent months digging through rubble, assisting with rescue efforts and helping to maintain traffic around the world trade center site after the 9/11 attack.
Ferreyra, while standing next to his wife Lisa, recounted his tribulations with his 9/11 related cancer that began in 2005 – at one point being told by doctors that he had a 5 percent chance to live. Only for the donation of life-saving bone marrow was he present to see his former attorney face justice.
Shortly after Ferreyra become ill, Vila filed a Victim’s Compensation claim on behalf of Ferreyra and was ultimately awarded more than a million dollars for his pain, suffering and lost income from his forced retirement. However, Vila gave him only $100,000 which was 10 percent of the actual award. Over the next three years, Ferreyra said Vila lied to him, telling him that the Fund had not paid the additional compensation because “funding ran out,” when in actuality, Vila had kept the money for himself.
Ferreyra became suspicious after he inquired with the fund and found out that they had paid out more than a million dollars to Vila. He contacted Barasch on the advice of fellow police officers.
“Once I spoke to Mr. Ferreyra, I knew immediately that his prior attorney had stolen 90 percent of his award,” said Barasch standing with his partner, lawyer Bruce Kaye, who is a former assistant Bronx attorney, both of whom represented Ferreyra for free.
“I told Mr. Ferreyra to call the VCF immediately and they confirmed that his award was paid in full to Vila on October 12, 2016. They were devastated not just by the theft, but by the betrayal of their attorney who was also a trusted friend and former NYPD lieutenant,” Barasch said.
In addition, they also discovered that Vila had been disbarred for a previous grand larceny from another client.
The story didn’t end there as Barasch sought relief from the New York State Lawyers Fund for Client Protection. The fund, whose mission is to protect legal consumers from dishonest lawyers, awarded $400,000 as partial restitution – the maximum allowed under the fund’s charter.
“This experience has been devastating,” Ferreyra said, nearly coming to tears outside the federal court. “I trusted a fellow NYPD officer and I felt totally violated when I learned that he was a common thief and a liar and that his clear intent was to loot from me and the 9/11 Victim Fund.”
The Ferreyra couple and the two attorneys went inside the courthouse to hear the plea, in which Vila faces up to 10 years in prison. Before Vila was arrested, Ferreyra spoke with his former attorney who he said apologized, but he didn’t believe he was sincere.
“Once he realized he was caught, when my wife and I were able to confront him, we had him meet us at a neutral location because I did not want him coming to my home, and he more or less apologized,” Ferreyra said. “It wasn’t really a true apology – he was really apologizing to himself like he was happy to be caught. One of the words to us was, ‘I’m surprised it took you this long to find out.”
Barasch called it “blood money,” and called Vila “a common thief.”
“Tens of thousands of World Trade Center first responders have become victims themselves battling devastating illnesses caused by their exposure,” Barasch said. “I couldn’t bear to see this disabled police officer be a victim again. There was no question that we would represent him pro-bono to seek justice.”
Barasch said his firm will continue to pursue Vila civilly to find his assets and make sure Ferreyra is fully compensated. Vila will be sentenced on Feb. 5.
“It’s so important that when the public reads about unscrupulous lawyers like Mr. Vila, they know that there are many more attorneys who care deeply about protecting the best interest of their clients,” he concluded.