Former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo wasn't in the courtroom yesterday, but the 55-month prison term he received last week hung in the air as his codefendant, Ruth Arnao, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison.

Imposing a sentence far below the more than five years behind bars sought by prosecutors, U.S. District Judge Ronald L. Buckwalter said the calculation, under federal sentencing guidelines, that called for 70 to 87 months in prison was "much greater than is necessary."

Buckwalter acknowledged a "firestorm" of criticism by the public in the week since he sentenced Fumo, but chalked it up to news accounts of the case, especially by The Inquirer. The newspaper, he said, had turned an "ongoing court case into a daily spectacle."

The Inquirer "by its coverage and editorials has led the public to expect that long prison terms are the only just outcome," Buckwalter said. "Public opinion should be considered" but "should not be the basis" for Arnao's sentence, he added.

An anguished-looking Arnao, 52, meanwhile, sat nervously as Buckwalter and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert A. Zauzmer debated the deluge of letters, phone calls, and e-mails that have poured into the judge's chambers and the U.S. Attorney's Office since Buckwalter rejected prosecutors' call for a sentence of more than 15 years in prison for Fumo, which itself was below the maximum of 27 years the U.S. Probation Department had said could be justified under sentencing guidelines.

Mayor Nutter yesterday called the sentences for both Fumo and Arnao "absurdly low."

"It is astounding to me that these sentences, a week apart, back to back, would come in so low. And the public will never understand this. It sends the wrong message to private citizens and public employees alike," Nutter told KYW-AM (1060).

Both sentences, he said, were "an affront to anyone's sense of justice."

Arnao told the judge that she was sorry, and said that the extent of her wrongdoing had dawned on her gradually during the five-month trial.

"I was very wrong in what I did," Arnao said.

Her lawyer, Edwin J. Jacobs Jr., said later he was pleased with the sentence - and expected that Arnao would "be OK with it" once the emotional trauma of the tense hearing had passed.

The proceeding unfolded in a courtroom packed with supporters of Arnao, including her husband, Mitchell Rubin, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission who remains under FBI investigation for allegedly having a "no-work" contract thanks to Fumo.

Arnao, who worked for Fumo for more than 20 years and afterward headed Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, was found guilty in March of 45 counts of conspiracy, fraud, and obstructing justice.

Prosecutors contended that she and Fumo defrauded the nonprofit by getting it to pay for hundreds of personal and consumer items, such as vacuum cleaners, mosquito magnets, farm equipment, and power tools. All told, they said, the charity lost more than $900,000.

Fumo, 66, a long-powerful Democrat, was found guilty of obstructing justice; defrauding the state Senate by getting employees to do personal, political, and campaign work for him on state time; and defrauding Citizens' Alliance and the Independence Seaport Museum. In total, he was found guilty of 137 counts.

The U.S. Attorney's Office has said it plans to appeal Fumo's 55-month sentence.

Zauzmer and Assistant U.S. Attorney John J. Pease had called for a sentence for Arnao within the guidelines' range of 70 to 87 months.

"The criminal conduct that took place here is very serious," Zauzmer said.

He said that Arnao "adopted Mr. Fumo's lifestyle" and helped herself to all kinds of purchases paid with a Citizens' Alliance credit card, including many made at a Sam's Club at the Shore, where both own vacation homes.

Zauzmer called it "thousands and thousands of dollars of petty theft that added up to major theft."

Such conduct, Zauzmer went on, was the reason that the public had reacted so angrily to the 55-month sentence imposed on Fumo.

Buckwalter said he was not the "least bit surprised" by that sentiment. "I knew there would be a tremendous firestorm," the judge said. But he attributed the public's outrage at the sentence to news coverage, especially in The Inquirer.

When Zauzmer said the media reports were accurate, the judge interjected: "Sometimes."

"We know how accurate the media is, don't we?" Buckwalter said. The news media, he added, "has such a low reputation in the community."

Later, he focused on The Inquirer, saying Philadelphia essentially is a "one-paper town."

"We have a watchdog in The Inquirer, but we don't have a watchdog over the watchdog," the judge said.

Buckwalter, a Republican who served as district attorney and Common Pleas Court judge in Lancaster County before being appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush, said he has long been affected by historians' writings about the "rugged individualism" of men and women from the 18th and 19th centuries, especially a tombstone epitaph inscribed in part with the words Unswayed by public opinion.

The judge said he considered the public sentiment in the case, but also a variety of other factors - the nature of the offense, Arnao's character, how to promote public confidence in the law, and how to deter others from engaging in such crime.

"I have to consider the need to provide a just punishment," said Buckwalter. He said he had sought to impose a sentence "that is not just punitive in nature."

Zauzmer noted that another codefendant, Leonard Luchko, a computer technician in Fumo's South Philadelphia office, had been sentenced to a longer prison term - 30 months - for fewer crimes.

Luchko, he said, "got his salary and nothing else," while Arnao, along with Fumo, rang up their purchases.

Luchko - who was sentenced by Judge William H. Yohn Jr. - pleaded guilty to 28 counts of obstructing justice and one count of conspiracy, and he agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the investigation. He was not called to testify, however, because prosecutors found that he had been sending messages to Fumo in which he made disparaging remarks about the government.

Under sentencing rules, a defendant who is sentenced to more than a year in prison - as Arnao was - is eligible for 15 percent time off for good behavior, meaning that Arnao could end up serving about 10 months behind bars. She was also fined $45,000 and ordered to pay restitution.

She must surrender to federal prison officials by Aug. 31 - the same day as Fumo.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.