Former Rep. Frank Ballance (search) was sentenced Wednesday to four years in federal prison for conspiring to divert taxpayer money to his law firm and family through a charitable organization he helped start.

Ballance, a 63-year-old Democrat who was a state senator before being elected to Congress in 2002, also agreed to repay $61,917 and to forfeit $203,000 in a bank escrow account in the name of the John A. Hyman Memorial Foundation.

The forfeited funds will be returned to North Carolina (search) taxpayers, federal prosecutor Dennis Duffy said.

"I want to apologize to my family and all the people I represent for what, I call them mistakes, but they were violations of the law," Ballance said before he was sentenced.

Ballance, who represented the 1st Congressional District in northeastern North Carolina, reached a plea bargain last November in which he acknowledged conspiring to commit mail fraud (search) and launder money.

Ballance had resigned from Congress in June 2004, citing ill health, without completing his first term.

According to a 51-page indictment, Ballance channeled $2.3 million in state money from 1994 to 2003 to the nonprofit foundation he operated to help poor people fight drug and alcohol abuse.

"He ran that foundation like a private piggy bank," Duffy said. "No one in the Hyman Foundation even knew how much they were getting."

In many cases, Duffy said, Ballance hid the financial trail by moving money from the Hyman Foundation to another nonprofit or charitable group before it wound up benefiting family or supporters. Ballance also used his legislative position to intimidate state employees to look away from the foundation's inadequate accounting, Duffy said.

Ballance admitted dipping into foundation money to give his son $20,000 toward a Lincoln Navigator luxury sport utility vehicle; to pay his daughter $5,000 for computer services she didn't perform; and to share $143,250 with his mother to pay for community programs.

But he said the prosecution's description of a conspiracy involving several others was "overkill."

"There was no grand conspiracy. They know that. Just some misspent money," Ballance said.