Attorneys for state Sen. Vince Fumo and for his former top deputy, Ruth Arnao, fired back yesterday at prosecutors, who want a federal judge to determine whether the attorneys should be booted over alleged conflicts in the fraud case.

Fumo and Arnao were indicted by a federal grand jury in February on conspiracy, fraud, tax and obstruction charges.

Fumo attorney Richard A.

Sprague said the feds' plea for a hearing was based on "patent distortions and scurrilous allegations" to "smear" Fumo's attorneys.

Arnao attorney Joel L. Frank said the feds were trying to "rob" Arnao of her constitutional right to her chosen counsel.

The feds filed court papers last month alleging that Sprague's firm had represented Fumo as well as three organizations Fumo is alleged to have defrauded - the state Senate; a charity, Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods Inc., and the Independence Seaport Museum.

The feds plan to put on the stand all board members of Citizens Alliance and said that Sprague himself may be called as a witness in Fumo's trial, which is expected to begin in February.

Frank's firm and Atlantic City lawyer Edwin Jacobs Jr. have been paid at least $680,000 and $350,000, respectively, by Citizens Alliance to defend Arnao, the charity's former executive director, the feds said.

Frank and Jacobs said in court papers that the charity's board agreed to pay Arnao's legal fees, that the agreement was legal and that there was no conflict issue.

Sprague raised questions about the motives of prosecutors.

He wrote that prosecutors knew he represented Fumo since at least March 2004. He said the feds' motion to determine whether he should be booted was simply a "litigation tactic to undermine" Fumo's ability to defend himself with attorneys he picked.

He said the feds knew around the same time that his firm had represented both Citizens Alliance and the seaport museum.

Sprague, citing numerous court rulings, said the feds were obligated to raise the issue of conflicts as soon as they knew about them, not three years later.

Prosecutors said the alleged conflicts did not "crystallize" until Fumo was indicted in February, an assertion that Sprague called "nonsense."

To date, none of the victims Fumo is alleged to have defrauded has joined in the government's call for a hearing on whether Sprague should be booted.

"This fact alone calls into question the conclusory statements by the government that the victims' interests and those of the senator are irreconcilably at odds," Sprague wrote.

Sprague cited an earlier court ruling involving allegations of conflicts by co-defendant Leonard Luchko's attorney.

Senior U.S. District Judge William H. Yohn Jr. said courts should be "hesitant" to boot defense attorneys when their clients aren't demanding it.

Nevertheless, Sprague said Fumo met recently with attorney Glenn Zeitz, who is not affiliated with Sprague's firm, to advise him on all aspects of the government's conflict motion.

Prosecutors said they don't necessarily believe all the alleged conflicts warrant disqualification but raised them because they don't want them to be an issue on appeal if Fumo and Arnao are convicted.