The operator of a now defunct Huntington debt-counseling service was sentenced to 7 years in prison Friday for operating the business as a fraud that actually cheated desperate people seeking relief from financial problems. Eriks Pukke, 38, who grew up in Centerport but now lives in California, also was ordered to pay restitution of $1.9 million and never work in the counseling business again after having been convicted of mail fraud by U.S. District Judge Joanna Seybert in Central Islip. Pukke's firm, Debticated, cheated 17,000 people around the country out of $24 million between 2000 and 2003, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Charles Kelly. The firm widely advertised that it could help those in debt. "I want to apologize, [I have] no excuse but greed," Pukke said before he was sentenced. Seybert said Pukke's conduct was "really disgraceful," taking advantage of people who could ill afford the thousands of dollars in fees that Debticated charged them. Seybert also criticized several unnamed people who had written her to ask for leniency, saying Pukke did not realize he was committing a crime. "He didn't know anything he was doing was wrong?" Seybert said. "He surely knew it wasn't right." Debticated employees claimed to work for a nonprofit and used high-pressure tactics to get people to obtain their services, prosecutors said. Six employees of Debticated on Long Island who were also convicted in the case are awaiting sentencing. The case was the first criminal action against Pukke. But in 2003, Pukke and Debticated were barred civilly from operating in California for being unlicensed in that state.