In the late 1970s, Tulsa oil man Robert B. Sutton was one of the richest men in America, with a private jet, a beach hotel in the Bahamas and a Louisiana mansion that "made Tara in 'Gone With the Wind' look like an outhouse," in the words of a guest.

"He said [the oil business] was like squeezing dough, with money squirting out through his fingers," an Oklahoma acquaintance said.

Forbes magazine put his net assets at $150 million. Friends described him as a billionaire.

Two weeks ago, Sutton, 53, sat dejectedly in federal district court, his lower lip quivering, as a jury found him guilty of conspiracy and bribery -- an outgrowth of a $1.1 billion lawsuit filed against him by the Energy Department, said to be the largest federal suit against an individual.

This morning, Sutton, who suffered a stroke four years ago, will be escorted from D.C. Jail to U.S. District Court to be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.

Already serving a prison term on a 1982 Oklahoma conviction for obstruction of justice, Sutton faces fines of up to $1 million, in addition to the jail sentence, for trying to stop or influence a federal investigation of his oil-pricing practices.

It has been a dramatic fall from grace for a college dropout who in the early 1970s was operating the Oklahoma Tire and Supply Co. in a Tulsa suburb and subsequently went bankrupt, then rebounded to vast oil wealth by dint of his personal drive.

"He got a phone and a couple of legal pads and he started selling oil," an Oklahoma newspaper reporter said. "It made him a billionaire, or damn close to it."

Now, Sutton's lawyer, Mitchell Lansden of Baton Rouge, La., said two court-ordered freezes in the early 1980s on Sutton's assets "destroyed his companies." He has filed for personal and corporate bankruptcy.

He is appealing the outcome of the government's civil suit, under which he owes about $400 million, including penalties and interest, in restitution for alleged oil-pricing irregularities.

"The government's been after him for a long time," Lansden said.

The lawyer said several of Sutton's properties, including the Xanadu Beach Hotel, which he bought from Howard Hughes' Summa Corp. for $8 million, have been sold to meet business and legal costs.

Tax liens and bad investments also have taken a toll, Lansden said. Sutton has alleged in court papers that many of his employes fleeced him.

"I don't think there'll be anything left," Lansden said.

But the claims of poverty don't impress skeptical federal prosecutors. "Nobody believes he's impecunious, although he claims to be," said Assistant U.S. Attorney E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., who prosecuted the bribery case here.

In the 1982 Tulsa trial, federal prosecutors charged that Sutton made his millions by means of an intricate fraud scheme. He allegedly "miscertified" so-called "old oil" -- produced before oil price controls took effect in 1973 -- as higher-priced "new oil."

The price difference, allegedly concealed in bookkeeping transactions, allowed Sutton to pocket huge sums, according to the government's evidence.

But in a midtrial ruling that stunned prosecutors, U.S. District Court Judge James Ellison dismissed all of the fraud and racketeering counts against Sutton, holding that the government had failed to make its case.

What remained were obstruction-of-justice charges alleging that Sutton had asked a New Orleans acquaintance to help prevent two former associates from producing company records for a federal grand jury.

Unfortunately for Sutton, the acquaintance was reputed mobster Carlos Marcello, who was under secret wiretap surveillance in the FBI's "Brilab" investigation of suspected bribery involving government and labor officials in several states. Prosecutors also charged that Sutton had ordered some other company records destroyed.

The jury believed that section of the Justice Department's case and Sutton was convicted.

Sutton has steadfastly maintained his innocence of any oil-price wrongdoing -- an argument that has won sympathy in some quarters.

"He says he didn't understand the Energy Department regulations and there's truth in that," said Riley Wilson, the veteran oil editor of the Tulsa World. "Several appeals courts have held that the rules were ambiguous. The obstruction and bribery -- that's another matter."

Others doubt that Sutton was quite so naive as an oil trader.

"He told me once, 'Every time DOE passed a new regulation, they opened three new alleys for me to make money,' " said one acquaintance who asked to remain unidentified.

Drenched in prosperity, Sutton was said to have bought $100,000 homes for some of his employes and rewarded others with fat bonuses at Christmas time.

"It was a hell of a free-wheeling period, I'll tell you," said one Tulsa resident familiar with Sutton's rise and decline. "Those people lived in a profligate style."

A self-described born salesman, Sutton today seems a different man, worried about his wife and family and exhibiting "the servility of a convict," according to a friend who visited Sutton recently in federal prison in Fort Worth, Tex.

"It's a country club down there, but he's reacting badly to it," the friend said. Sutton's health also is impaired by the effects of his stroke.

At his financial peak, Sutton donated a new baseball park to his home town. In gratitude, officials named the place for its benefactor.

"And as soon as he was indicted," one Tulsa resident said, they "changed the name to Tulsa County Stadium."