The former president of the Independence Seaport Museum, John S. Carter, who took more than $1.5 million in museum funds to finance a lavish lifestyle, was sentenced today to 15 years in federal prison.

The sentence was among the harshest handed down in federal court in Philadelphia for a white-collar crime in recent years. It was longer than the seven-year sentence former City Councilman Rick Mariano received and the 10-year term issued to city treasurer Corey Kemp.

U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick said such a long sentence was justified, in part, because Carter tried to steal another $1 million by converting a museum life insurance policy after the FBI raided his home, and, after his guilty plea, lied to the IRS about his assets.

"This case is truly a tragedy," Surrick said.

Carter, 57, has suffered two heart attacks, and his lawyer, Mark E. Cedrone, said that such a long prison term "could effectively be a life sentence."

Assistant U.S. Attorney John J. Pease had sought a sentence in the 15- to 19-year range, saying Carter engaged in obstruction of justice after his guilty plea.

Pease asked that Carter be imprisoned immediately, but the judge gave him 45 days to report to prison.

Carter, who earned $350,000 a year and lived rent-free in the museum's Society Hill townhouse, had pleaded guilty to misusing the nonprofit's credit cards on a grand scale and diverting other funds to furnish an opulent lifestyle.

Carter used museum money to buy himself six-figure sailboats, 19th-century works of art, custom suits, flat-screen televisions, top-shelf flatware, first-class trips overseas, and a $250,000 carriage house for his property in Cape Cod. He also pleaded guilty to trying to convert a $1 million life insurance policy.

Museum officials said that Carter looted the Penn's Landing museum during a time when it was running multimillion-dollar deficits and laying off employees.

Carter served as president for 17 years. During his final years, 2000 to 2005, the museum said, the endowment fell from $27 million to $7.7 million, and visitor attendance dropped by about half.

The case against Carter is tangentially related to the federal investigation of State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.), who served on the museum board and was a friend of Carter's. Fumo faces unrelated charges of defrauding the museum over the alleged personal use of its boats. Those charges represent a small part of a 139-count fraud and obstruction-of-justice case against Fumo.

Fumo is not accused of being part of Carter's fraud scheme, and neither Fumo nor Carter is expected to testify in the other man's case.

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Contact staff writer John Shiffman at 215-854-2658 or jshiffman@phillynews.com