LIKE A LOT of Philadelphians, Carlos Matos set off for Atlantic City with big dreams. And like a lot of others, he gambled and lost.

Today, Matos, part of the influential Tartaglione political family, is expected to plead guilty to one count of bribery in federal court in Camden.

It is a bitter end to Matos' fantasy of opening a Latino restaurant on the Boardwalk. And his dream of building condos within a stone's throw of Showboat Atlantic City casino.

He also wanted to acquire property in Atlantic City and create a trade school to help young Latinos get union jobs, officials said.

Big plans, yes, but why not?

Matos, a burly North Philadelphia ward leader with a tough hide and, arguably, a soft heart, was accustomed to making things happen. He'd wagered - and won - many times before in Philadelphia politics and business ventures.

But Atlantic City isn't Philadelphia, where loyalties can run fierce. Unbeknownst to Matos, he was playing in a political world where friends turn on friends to save themselves.

Matos, who owns a condo in Margate, was introduced to that world in 2001 through state Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, a close Philadelphia ally at the time, political insiders said.

A few years later, when some Atlantic City councilmen asked Matos for money, he dug into his pockets. In exchange for his generosity, Matos hoped to further his dreams.

He never suspected they were wearing body wires for the FBI, according to his defense attorney, Charles H. Nugent Jr., of Marlton.

"He got caught in a sting," Nugent said. "Did he trust them? Sure, he trusted them, or he wouldn't have done what he did. But if he blames anyone, he blames himself."

Matos has refused requests from federal authorities to cooperate in the probe.

Matos will be transported to Camden today from a Philadelphia jail at 17th and Cambria streets, where he is serving a 60-day sentence for driving with a suspended license stemming from a 2002 DUI incident in New Jersey.

He's the latest political fish to get caught in an FBI dragnet, dubbed "Operation Steal Pier," launched in Atlantic City more than three years ago to root out government corruption.

According to a federal charging document, Matos allegedly gave "corrupt payments" to former Atlantic City Council members Craig Callaway, Gibb R. Jones, "and/or" Ramon M. Rosario. All three have pleaded guilty to accepting bribes from others and have cooperated with the feds.

Nugent said he did not know how much Matos paid the councilmen. But in one recorded meeting, Matos gave Rosario $1,000, ostensibly to curry favor for his plan to open a vocational-technical institute in a vacant city school building, according to Rosario's attorney, Michael Huff.

Earlier this month, a federal judge gave Rosario and Jones light sentences, citing their cooperation in the probe.

In a written cooperation agreement, federal prosecutors noted that Rosario had "participated in undercover activities, including wearing a consensual recording device in his meeting with Carlos Matos . . . Rosario was ready and willing to testify against Matos and this fact was made known to Matos," according to Huff, who read parts of the confidential agreement parts of a government sentencing motion to this reporter during a phone interview.

Although Matos knows he did wrong, Nugent said, his intentions weren't all bad. He picked fruit from a poisonous tree because he wanted to help Atlantic City's Latino community, Nugent said.

"There were projects that he had discussed with [the councilmen] that were meant to help and empower the Hispanic community," Nugent said. "He was an advocate for his people. It's unfortunate that what he did was wrong, and he's ready to go to jail."

In Philadelphia, Matos has long been a go-to guy for candidates looking to win the Latino vote. The Democratic leader of the 19th Ward has helped build political kings and worked to tear them down, at times with his fists.

Now Matos faces a maximum of three years in federal prison on the Atlantic City bribery count, Nugent said.

"He's got people in the city who love him," Nugent said, "and he's got people in the city who are his political enemies, and they may seize upon this as an effort to discredit him and his family."

Matos, 58, married into a political dynasty 12 years ago. His wife, Renee Tartaglione, is chief deputy city commissioner. He is the son-in-law of City Commissioner Margaret Tartaglione, a Democratic power-broker. His sister-in-law is Pennsylvania state Sen. Christine M. Tartaglione, D-Philadelphia.

"He's felt to some degree that he's brought shame on that family, but they love him and they support him," Nugent said.

"With God's help, we'll get through this," Renee Tartaglione said yesterday. "Carlos is a man who takes responsibility for his actions. He always has been and he always will be."

Matos dragged the Tartagliones into Atlantic City's turncoat politics.

At the behest of her brother-in-law, Sen. Tartaglione said, she made a $7,500 campaign contribution to Craig Callaway, who rose to Atlantic City Council president before his political nose-dive in the bribery scandal.

The 2002 contribution from the senator was $5,300 over New Jersey's $2,200 legal donation limit.

"I made it at the request of Carlos Matos," the senator said in an interview last week. "It was based on his assessment that [Callaway] was a good candidate and he deserved backing. I have no idea how [Matos] knew him."

In 2003, Callaway's campaign returned $5,300 to Tartaglione's political-action committee, but the law required the money to be refunded within 48 hours.

The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission in March 2006 filed a campaign-finance complaint against Callaway and his sister, Gwen Lewis, who was his campaign treasurer. Last month, the commission settled the complaint after Callaway and Lewis agreed to pay a fine.

Sen. Tartaglione also contributed $5,300 in July 2003 to Atlantic City Residents United, a political-action committee run by Callaway.

It was Fumo who introduced Matos to Atlantic City politics about six years ago. At the time, politicos needed help getting out the vote for mayoral candidate Lorenzo T. Langford and his council slate.

"Vince told me about Carlos," said Atlantic City Business Administrator Domenic F. Cappella Sr., who was involved in Langford's campaign. "Senator Fumo said, 'I know a guy who could help you on the street campaign.' And that's how I got to know Carlos."

The street-savvy Matos brought in a busload of election canvassers from Philadelphia and Langford's team emerged victorious.

Matos fell out of favor with Fumo after Matos in 2003 backed Philadelphia Councilman Rick Mariano, who was seeking re-election.

Matos and Fumo haven't spoken to one another in about four years, said Fumo spokesman Gary Tuma.

Matos remained active in Atlantic City politics. While working his election wizardry, Matos began to see opportunities all over the resort town, particularly in the dilapidated areas.

Meanwhile, Fumo was indicted in February on numerous charges of fraud, tax offenses, and obstruction of justice. U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan has accused Fumo of illegally using money and employees from a nonprofit organization to maintain his Margate home and condos he owns in Ventnor. Fumo maintains his innocence.

Federal authorities had hoped to get Matos to flip on other political operatives they suspected of wrongdoing, but he refused, according to his attorney.

"Carlos recognized that he committed a crime and he had to pay the price," Nugent said. "He wasn't going to try and get anybody else jailed to save himself." *