Calling his ruling "a beacon" to others who might consider stealing public funds, a Montgomery County Court judge sentenced the former bookkeeper for two municipal sewer authorities to 10 to 23 months in county prison for embezzling $184,166 in public funds.

Linda Ann Marie Palermo, 42, of Audubon, cried throughout a two-hour hearing today in Norristown before learning that she will serve at least 10 months at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility.

She had no reaction as Judge Steven O'Neill ruled, and afterward her attorney, Richard Tompkins, declined comment. The prosecutor said he was satisfied with the ruling.

The judge said that as part of the sentence, Palermo will be on work release. His aim, he said, was to enable her to pay restitution to the authorities in Lower Gwynedd and West Conshohocken that she harmed.

After her jail term, she will be paroled to serve five years of probation, O'Neill ruled.

But just how much money Palermo actually stole is unclear, both the prosecution and defense agreed. Palermo herself said she didn't have a clue about the total.

In an emotional moment, she told O'Neill that she had stolen the money to support her husband's excessive spending habits in order to stay in his good graces during a rocky marriage.

"I was trying to pay the bills," Palermo sobbed. "I tried to pay it back. It just got out of control. I begged him to stop. I needed very bit of it."

The bonding company for Lower Gwynedd's sewer authority is owed $18,778.37, the two sides agreed, but the $165,387.49 owed West Conshohocken's sewer authority is subject to revision upward in a hearing to be held by July 15.

Assistant District Attorney Justin Boehret said a forensic auditor hired by the borough had found $547,000 in missing money before he was "let go" when the authority ran out of money to pay him.

The audit has not yet made public, Boehret said, but it could place the figure for missing funds as high as $900,000.

"First, you tell me it's $250,000 to $500,000," said an exasperated O'Neill. "Now you're telling me it's somewhere between $500,000 and $900,000. That's a lot of taxpayer money."

While testimony from Palermo's therapist and a phalanx of friends and one business associate portrayed her as honest and trustworthy, albeit struggling from the effects of childhood sexual abuse and a controlling husband, O'Neill questioned why she didn't stop stealing until confronted by police.

"She's a sympathetic person, but she was clearly unable to stop," O'Neill said. He also wondered why she never volunteered to "get out her checkbooks" to help authorities account for the missing money.

"This is a theft, pure and simple, and she stole from the borough and municipality she represented," said the judge. "It's all too common."

Palermo worked part-time for Lower Gwynedd Township Municipal Authority from October 2004 through last spring collecting sewer payments from township residents.

From August 2001 until last April, Palermo also administered the West Conshohocken Municipal Authority where she had similar duties. In both cases, she controlled bank accounts for deposit of payments from residents.

She siphoned off moneys to pay her mortgage, personal bills, for a vacation to Mexico, and to buy a 1994 Corvette. Tearfully, she told the judge, "I am sorry for what I've done.,"

O'Neill made it clear that in pronouncing sentence, he was speaking to a wider audience than just Palermo's situation; he meant to convince all those in charge of public money not to abuse their trust.

"Just as a lighthouse and a beacon are silent sentinels shining out to the ocean to warn [ships] of peril, you have to warn others that law enforcement will someday make this discovery.

"You will be held accountable, and sentence will be swift and certain," O'Neill said.