AUGUSTA — The woman who is charged with embezzling $166,000 from the Maine Trial Lawyers Association was a convicted felon when she was hired, having stolen money from a public school lunch program.

Bettysue Higgins, 53, of Gardiner was hired by the association in September 2002 as an administrative assistant in its two-person office in Augusta.

She worked there until she was fired on Oct. 8, 2008, after the association determined that $166,000 was missing, according to documents in Kennebec County Superior Court. She was indicted Friday on charges of theft by unauthorized taking and forgery. She is to be arraigned Feb. 23.

In 1991, before being hired by the trial lawyers’ group, Higgins was charged with theft by misapplication of property and theft by deception.

She was accused of stealing $2,045 from School Administrative District 11, which includes Gardiner, Pittston, Randolph and West Gardiner. She pleaded no contest in May 1991 and was sentenced to five years in prison, all suspended.

Higgins was ordered to repay the money during three years of probation. It was not clear from court records Tuesday whether that money has been repaid.

As a teacher’s aide at Gardiner Regional Junior High School, Higgins was responsible for depositing money from the school’s salad bar account.

In a letter to Higgins, then-Superintendent Merle Peacock wrote, “In conducting a review of the salad bar account at the junior high school for the 1989-1990 school year, MSAD 11 found a discrepancy between the amounts reported to have been taken in and the amounts deposited. There also was an irregularity in the amounts and dates of deposits.”

Higgins was fired on Sept. 26, 1990.

Ronald Bourget, her attorney in that case and in the new one, said Tuesday that he did not know whether restitution has been paid in the school lunch case. He would not comment further.

Public records show that Higgins and her husband, Michael, are in financial difficulty.

Michael Higgins told Gardiner city councilors on Nov. 17 that he had no money to correct a dangerous condition involving the pool at their home. City officials decided to fill in the pool this spring and bill the Higginses for the cost of the work.

Michael Higgins was convicted in 1992 of embezzling $14,000 from Gardiner’s Little League, for which he was treasurer. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, with all but three years suspended, and ordered to repay more than $16,300.

In published reports from 1992, authorities said the couple committed the thefts after falling behind on their home mortgage payments.