updated 10/10/2006 6:23:24 PM ET 2006-10-10T22:23:24

A former executive who admitted to embezzling millions of dollars from oil and gas drilling company Patterson-UTI Energy Inc. was sentenced to 25 years in prison Tuesday.

Jonathan D. Nelson, 36, was accused of taking more than $77 million from the second-largest land-based oil and gas drilling rig fleet in North America through a bogus invoice scheme. Authorities said he spent the money on an airplane, an airfield, a cattle ranch, a truck stop, homes and vehicles.

Nelson also was fined $200,000 and ordered to pay restitution of about $77 million minus the money that has been recouped from the sale of assets Nelson had purchased with the stolen money. He had faced a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

In comments to the court before Nelson was sentenced, Cloyce Talbot, the president and chief executive of the company, called the former chief financial officer a “sophisticated, high-dollar con man,” who before the embezzlement came to light had become “like a son to me.”

“I’m not here to talk about money: what we’ve lost can’t be measured in dollars,” he said. “Jody stole reputations that I will not live long enough to rebuild. We all trusted Jody. I can’t tell you how many people he betrayed.”

Several members of Nelson’s family, including his father, brother, estranged wife and numerous friends filled the gallery section. Nelson told the court that his embezzlement was “not fueled by greed or maliciousness.”

“I am truly very sorry and ashamed of my betrayal,” he said. “I know that words are cheap for me, but I want to apologize to the board, management and employees, and specifically to Mr. Talbot and Mr. Patterson.”

In an agreement with prosecutors, Nelson pleaded guilty in April to one count of wire fraud and aiding and abetting; and one count of engaging in monetary transactions derived from specified unlawful activity and aiding and abetting.

Nelson, who resigned in November, also was accused in a Securities and Exchange Commission civil lawsuit. He was named in a criminal complaint in November that accused him of falsely certifying an SEC report. The complaint came a day after the SEC sued Nelson alleging he embezzled the money.

“We are at a crossroads in American society where corporate malfeasance has appeared to reach an all-time high,” U.S. District Judge Sam Cummings said in court. “This type of conduct simply cannot be tolerated in our society.”

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