A small-town preacher was sentenced to 17 1/2 years in prison Thursday for stealing nearly $9 million from some 1,600 black churches by promising big returns on small investments.

Abraham Kennard (search) was also ordered to pay nearly $8 million in restitution and almost $600,000 in back taxes.

Kennard, 46, was found guilty by a federal jury in February on 116 counts, including fraud and evasion. Prosecutors said he ran a pyramid scheme that took advantage of the tight network of black preachers to which he belonged.

He could have gotten 33 years behind bars.

"These people lost everything they had. Some even lost their church. The court cannot ignore that," U.S. District Judge Harold L. Murphy (search) said.

Prosecutors said Kennard claimed his company was developing Christian resorts around the country. He told preachers that for a fee of a few thousand dollars, their churches could be "members" of his company. In return, he promised that in time the churches would get a grant or a forgivable loan of up to $500,000.