RICK MARIANO often thinks about his father's dying words in 1991.

"He said: 'Don't let them guys down the union hall talk you into going into politics,'" according to Mariano. "Flash forward 10, 15 years, I'm in federal prison for $25,000. I was young. I was foolish."

Foolish pretty much sums it up. In 2006, the former 7th District councilman was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for taking less than $30,000 in bribes.

He recently gave an in-depth prison interview to the Daily News at the minimum-security federal prison in Lewisburg, Pa., speaking about his trial, that fateful day atop the City Hall tower - and what he plans to do when he moves to a halfway house in October.

"I think I have something to offer. I would like to consult [for newly elected officials]," Mariano, 54, said. "It's very easy to fall into the pitfalls."

Gone are the slicked-back hair and the sharp suits, the tough-guy gun in an ankle holster.

Mariano wore a prison-issued khaki shirt and pants, black sneakers and sweatsocks with holes in the ankles. His graying hair hung down his back in a long ponytail and he sported a neatly clipped goatee.

Sitting in a small office at the prison, Mariano was subdued and reflective. But look closely and you still see the spark in his eye, the Philly attitude that made the former councilman a loved - and loathed - figure in the city.

"If I went back there and wanted to run for Council, I would win. No disrespect to the current councilwoman," Mariano said, referring to Maria D. Quiñones-Sánchez.

"It's hard for people who cover politics who don't live in the neighborhoods to understand."

How he fell

Most of Philadelphia knows how Rick Mariano ended up in this minimum-security prison, set in the rolling green hills of central Pennsylvania. During a period of personal financial strife in 2002 - he was entering his second marriage and his city paychecks were frozen due to a redistricting dispute - he took money from friends to pay his bills in exchange for political favors.

Mariano's crime was notable mostly for how small-time it was, how parochial. A more sophisticated politician could have moved that money legally through a campaign account, or simply taken a bank loan. But Mariano was never known for sophistication.

"I took a loan and it went wrong," Mariano said. "I knew what happened. I shouldn't have done it. I could have stopped it and I didn't."

With four years of prison-induced reflection under his belt, Mariano is calm when talking about the crime that brought him down. His friends paid about $23,445 of his credit-card debt and $5,400 for a gym membership.

Erie Steel Co., a metal-processing business in Mariano's district, issued three checks for his credit-card bill. Two of the checks were issued through middlemen.

Unfortunately for Mariano and the Erie Steel owners, the bookkeeper cutting the checks had her hand in the till. And when she got caught, she testified against Mariano and the company's owners, Philip and Louis Chartock, in exchange for a soft sentence.

Mariano still does not cop to masterminding the whole operation, putting some of the blame on the bookkeeper, but he acknowledges that he knew exactly what was going on.

"I could have stopped it and I didn't," Mariano said. "I didn't sit down and say do this and do that. But I'm guilty."

And why did he agree to such a ham-handed political payoff? Mostly because he didn't see any reason not to.

"I guess it's like being a professional athlete, you start to think you're invincible," Mariano said. "Phil offered to loan me the money to pay off my credit card. I should have gone to the bank and borrowed the money."

In exchange, Mariano provided some political favors, like getting Erie Steel a rate reduction from Peco Energy Co. He says these guys were his friends.

"They became contributors and friends. He always wanted to help me," Mariano said. Louis Chartrock and son Philip were convicted of fraud in 2006.

Many have noted that Mariano drew more prison time than former state Sen. Vince Fumo, who last year was sentenced to 4 1/2 years for 137 counts of corruption. But Mariano is philosophical about it.

"I'm happy for Vincent [getting a light sentence], I like the guy," Mariano said.

Getting into politics

A union son with a smart mouth and sharp elbows, Mariano muscled his way into Philly politics, first working as an aide to Councilman Dan McElhatton, before turning around and challenging McElhatton for his lower Northeast seat in 1995 in a venomous race.

"I think I saw the opening, and McElhatton didn't live up to my expectations at the time," Mariano said. "It was available and I manipulated everything to be able to do that."

After sailing into office, Mariano became a bombastic, bullying presence on Council, an advocate for the labor unions, quickly labeled by one of his colleagues the "councilman most likely to get into a fistfight."

He made headlines for pulling a gun on prostitutes in his district, getting into a fracas at a polling place, insulting minority groups and using staff to deliver cookies for his ex-wife's business.

"I thought I was being who the people who put me there wanted me to be," Mariano said. "I figured the end justified the means. I didn't know this would be the end."

Mariano said he feared his work in Council would be forever overshadowed by his offstage antics and trial.

The city's two new stadiums "should be named after me," he said, when asked what he counts as a key accomplishment during his time as a councilman. "The only thing people will remember about me is that I almost jumped off City Hall."

Mariano said he let the power and notoriety go to his head, and he did not blame anyone else for his downfall. And while he said he thinks Council would benefit from some new blood, he didn't unload on the Philadelphia Democratic machine system.

"It serves its purpose, because most people don't want to be bothered with [politics]," said Mariano, who stressed that he is not interested in a return to politics. "The system works."

Faith sustained him

Compared with verbal fisticuffs on the Council floor, union rallies or high-powered meetings with developers, Mariano's days are quiet now.

He rises at 4:30 a.m. to walk and pray, attends classes and does three hours of electrical work each day. He eats a lot of rice and beans and spends free time reading religious texts.

"I keep to myself," he said, crediting his Roman Catholic faith with helping him get through his sentence. "It's hard not getting into [religion] in prison, because you have a lot of time."

Mariano said that though he was always a practicing Catholic, his devotion has become far more serious during his time in prison, helping him accept his mistakes and look to the future.

He talks freely about how the judgment he awaits is not from Philadelphia, but from Jesus Christ. And he references a passage from the Bible, Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me."

For $70 a month, Mariano can talk on the phone for 10 minutes each day, which he uses to call his wife, Susan. She works as a paralegal and splits time between Philadelphia and Atlantic City as she awaits her husband's return.

"She's always been there. And it's been hard," he said, noting that he lost his pension and they had to sell their house to stay afloat.

Looking back on the time he was indicted, Mariano said: "I cried to her a lot. I didn't handle it well."

Set to get out to a halfway house on Oct. 18 - his sentence was reduced in part because he completed a substance-abuse program - Mariano hopes to start working as an electrician right away, which would allow him to live with his wife sooner and spend time with his two sons and granddaughter. His brother has been paying his union dues to keep him active.

"I've got to go back there and make a living. I'm broke," said Mariano, who has kept up his electrical skills. While imprisoned at Fort Dix, where he was first assigned, he said he built a hydroponic greenhouse.

Mariano declined to talk about his relationship with John Dougherty, business manager of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98, the political powerhouse that helped him win his Council seat. The reason is simple.

"When I leave here, I want to work as an electrician," Mariano said. "I like John Dougherty, he's a good guy."

Xanax-fueled tower climb

The dramatic climax of Mariano's downfall came on Oct. 20, 2005, when, despondent over his looming indictment, he ascended the City Hall observation tower, setting off a panic that he was planning to end his life.

Today, Mariano says he was not suicidal, but depressed. His description of the day evokes the climactic ending of "Goodfellas," when the world starts rapidly closing in on the increasingly erratic central character.

At the time, Mariano says, he was heavily using Xanax for anxiety. That morning, he had taken four or five pills to help get through the day's Council session. Everywhere he went, he was surrounded by media, stopped by two reporters on his way to an afternoon meeting with his attorney.

At the meeting, his attorney told Mariano he couldn't represent him. Feeling overwhelmed and panicked and worried about facing the press outside his office, Mariano said he went to the City Hall tower to reflect.

"I shut my phone off, I sit there, I meditate," Mariano said.

When Mariano turned his phone back on, he had 25 concerned messages. And before long, then-Mayor John Street and then-Police Commissioner Sylvester Johnson appeared at the door and asked him to come down.

Mariano sums up his personal odyssey like this:

"I made some really bad decisions. I thought I was doing them for the right reasons. If I had stayed an electrician, I'd be home at 4 o'clock every day, playing with my granddaughter."