Calling his ruling "a beacon" to others who consider betraying the public trust, 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.

Linda Ann Marie Palermo, 42, of Audubon, cried throughout a two-hour hearing Friday 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. Afterward, her attorney, Richard Tompkins, declined to comment; the prosecutor said he was satisfied with the ruling.

As part of the sentence, Palermo will be on work release. The judge said he wanted her to repay the sewer authorities in Lower Gwynedd and West Conshohocken. After her jail term, she will be paroled to serve five years of probation.

In an emotional moment, she said she had stolen the money to support her husband's lavish spending habits, so she might win his favor in a rocky marriage.

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

But how much Palermo stole is unclear. Even she didn't know the total.

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

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

The audit isn't public yet, but it could put the sum of missing money as high as $900,000, Boehret said.

"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."

Though testimony from Palermo's therapist and a phalanx of friends and one business associate portrayed her as loving and trustworthy, O'Neill questioned why she didn't stop stealing until police confronted her.

"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," the judge said. "It's all too common."

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

From August 2001 until 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 money to pay her mortgage, personal bills, for a vacation to Mexico, and for a 1994 Corvette. Tearfully, she told the judge, "I am sorry for what I've done."

O'Neill said at sentencing he was targeting a wider audience than just Palermo's case; he meant to warn those in charge of public money not to betray their trust.

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

Contact staff writer Bonnie L. Cook at 610-313-8232 at bcook@phillynews.com.