Carlos Matos, a passionate and controversial North Philadelphia Democratic ward leader, described himself as an activist who followed his heart.

Undoubtedly, he helped untold numbers of the downtrodden, judging from the 60 supporters who went to Camden yesterday in two yellow school buses for his hearing in U.S. District Court.

There, Matos was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000 for bribing three Atlantic City councilmen in the hope they would help him get a role in several development projects.

Matos said he had followed his heart to Atlantic City as well, getting involved in politics there only because he wanted to help the Latino community. He said the development project in which he was truly interested was a vocational school he wanted to start in a vacant building.

Instead, he said, he got "hooked in" by a couple of crooked politicians looking to save their own skins. "They kept coming to me," he said.

"All I can say, your honor, is those brothers played me like a 13-year-old girl," said Matos, 58. "They needed a scapegoat to lessen their sentences. . . . That's what I'm angry about."

Federal prosecutors saw the situation differently.

They described a secretly recorded dinner meeting with former Council President Craig Callaway and Councilman Ramon Rosario during which Matos said he expected something in return for the bribes he had paid them.

Before that dinner, at a restaurant in the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Matos met with Terry Jacobs, a contractor and convicted drug dealer who turned FBI informant. Matos, prosecutors said, ordered Jacobs to strip naked to prove he wasn't wearing a wire.

Jacobs told Matos that he would strip if Matos did the same. Later, at dinner, Matos bragged to the councilmen about how much he and Jacobs trusted each other.

"We got naked together," he said, according to federal prosecutors.

Despite the pre-meal nudity, the FBI managed to record the conversation, though an agent at yesterday's sentencing demurred on revealing the method.

The vocational school never came up in the recorded conversations, prosecutors said.

Callaway, Rosario and Councilman Gibb Jones, the third politician Matos was accused of bribing, have pleaded guilty and been sentenced. Callaway and Rosario agreed to cooperate with the FBI and recorded conversations for investigators.

Matos, who owns a home in nearby Ventnor, first got involved in Atlantic City politics in 2001 when he helped get out the Hispanic vote for mayoral candidate Lorenzo Langford.

He admitted paying $11,000 to Callaway, $1,100 to Rosario, and an undisclosed amount to Jones in 2005 and 2006. In exchange, he wanted to be included in development projects at Bader Field, the closed city airport, and at the site of the former Garwood Mills department store.

He also wanted to start a Boardwalk restaurant in a defunct, city-owned "comfort station" - essentially a bathroom.

Matos' attorney, Charles Nugent Jr., said the idea that his client could develop anything as large as Bader Field was "pie in the sky."

"I'm no Steve Wynn," Matos said, referring to the casino magnate.

But he was a player in Philadelphia politics.

Matos came from Puerto Rico to live in Philadelphia with his mother when he was around 7. At 14, he dropped out of school and lived on the North Philadelphia streets, his lawyer said.

Matos' life has been marred by drug and alcohol problems, but he raised five children - a feat the sentencing judge noted yesterday.

"He had a horrible upbringing," said Judge Robert B. Kugler said. "It's remarkable that he raised five children who are successful."

As a young man, Matos was a Teamsters organizer, Nugent said. Later, Matos worked for the Norris Square Civic Association in North Philadelphia and became a community activist.

In the early 1990s, he worked on a campaign for Pennsylvania State Sen. Tina Tartaglione, daughter of City Commissioner Marge Tartaglione. He began dating Tina's sister, Renee, the chief deputy city commissioner, and later married her.

Renee and Tina Tartaglione attended yesterday's sentencing. Tina Tartaglione remains in a wheelchair from a 2003 boating accident in the Intracoastal Waterway in Atlantic City. Matos was at the helm when several large wakes hurled her to the deck.

For more than a decade, many political insiders have considered Matos a go-to guy to secure Philadelphia's Hispanic vote. In recent weeks, his political friends went to his aid; more than 20 political figures wrote letters to Kugler, urging leniency.

Kugler recounted the letter writers yesterday, somewhat in amazement. They included Mayor Street, who penned a two-paragraph missive, the only time he has done so since becoming mayor, his spokesman said.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady (D., Pa.), Philadelphia Sheriff John Green, and five Philadelphia City Council members - Frank DiCicco, Frank Rizzo, Jannie Blackwell, Darrell Clarke and William Greenlee - wrote letters as well.

"I don't know how politics works over there," Kugler said, "but it is an extraordinary number of letters."

Other letter writers, though, called Matos a brutish, bareknuckled political operative. One called him "a plague in our community." Matos famously has tangled with State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) - the two allegedly threw punches during a confrontation at a Democratic Party meeting last year.

Nugent asked the judge to discount those letter writers because they were aligned with Matos' political opponent, presumably Cruz.

"I do discount the letters from the politicians," Kugler said. "That's what they do."

The judge noted the many letters from ordinary people lauding Matos' charity. One woman said she was a single mother of seven, living on welfare for 15 years. She credited Matos with helping her get and keep a job for the last five years.

"You have this effect on people, a good effect," Kugler said. "That somewhat balances the bad."

But Kugler said he doubted Matos' assertion that he entered Atlantic City politics with a pure heart. He even recited a Matos wiretap boast that Rosario was his "bitch."

"The arrogance of that belies his claim that he went down there with all good intentions," the judge said.