POLITICS
02/16/2012 10:37 EST | Updated 04/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Actor who played mobster on TV, dealt in coke in real life, sentenced to 42 months

MONTREAL - A three-and-half-year sentence in a real-life prison cell has been handed down to a Quebec actor who played a make-believe mobster on television.

In a case of life imitating art, Tony Conte, a minor Quebec celebrity best known for his roles on the small screen, was busted for trying to buy 30 kilos of cocaine.

The sentence was handed down Thursday more than three years after Conte was nabbed in an elaborate sting operation; he was caught plotting a transaction with a group of men that included Mexican drug dealers and, unbeknownst to him, undercover police.

Last month, Conte was found guilty by a jury of conspiracy and possession of cocaine with intent to traffic.

He had been arrested in October 2008 while trying to buy the cocaine, in a phony transaction set up by undercover officers at a Montreal hotel.

The ruse concluded when the buyers were $300,000 short of the agreed-upon $500,000 price tag, and a police tactical unit moved in and arrested everyone in the room.

Conte steadfastly denied that he was involved in any sort of drug transaction and claimed he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The fact that he maintained those denials — even after a jury handed down a guilty verdict — signalled to Justice Sophie Bourque that Conte is not rehabilitated at all.

"The version of events given by Tony Conte is surprising," the judge said Thursday.

It was a confident Conte who testified with poise, dressed smartly in a suit and tie, late last year during his trial. Conte, 48, had testified that he had unwittingly found himself in the middle of a drug transaction and had no idea what was going on.

He also tried to claim ignorance of text messages left on his phone discussing the deal, and told the courtroom that he didn't understand English.

He showed little emotion Thursday upon being informed that he was going to a federal pen.

With time served, Conte is left with a sentence of 39 months and 20 days. He'll be eligible for parole after serving one-third of the sentence, in 2013.

The Crown had wanted more.

"We consider him the architect of the transaction," said prosecutor David Simon outside the courtroom.

"What should be underlined in the judgment by Justice Bourque is the Mr. Conte continues to maintain his lies in the version of events...

"We're not completely satisfied with the sentence. We were of the opinion that given his version of events and his level of participation, his sentence should have been higher."

Simon, who had sought a sentence of as much as six years, was still pleased that Conte would at least be serving time in a federal prison because he was sentenced to more than two years.

The four others Conte was charged with all pleaded guilty quickly to similar charges and received sentences that ranged from two to six years.

The Montreal actor is best known for playing a fictional mobster in the French-language crime drama "Omerta'' in the 1990s.

He played a lothario of the underworld, Vincenzo Spadollini, in the television series, sweet-talking his way into the heart of the Mafia don's daughter.

In media interviews at the height of his acting career, Conte said he was a class clown as a youngster, but said he often escaped trouble not only because he was one of the smart kids but also because he managed to make his teachers laugh.

Conte later attended the Quebec Conservatory and realized he had a passion for acting, for getting into the skin of a character.

But the Crown said he was down on his luck and hadn't worked much in the leadup to his arrest. He also didn't file taxes from 2007 to 2009.

During his sentencing hearing, Conte cited numerous entertainment projects he had on the go while his lawyers argued for a sentence of less than two years to be served in the community.

Conte said he had a number of projects underway. Producers and a well-known Canadian playwright testified at his sentencing hearing, saying they were ready to work with Conte.

Among those projects was a movie version of a play by renowned Quebec playwright Marcel Dube, "Un simple soldat."

Neither Conte's lawyer or his wife would comment following the sentencing Thursday.