AUGUSTAA former administrative assistant for the Maine Trial Lawyers Association admitted in court this morning to embezzling $166,000 from the group, and a prosecutor said much of it was spent on online social-networking games.

 

Bettysue Higgins, 54, of Gardiner, pleaded guilty in Kennebec County Superior Court to theft by unauthorized taking or transfer and forgery. The plea came just as her jury trial on those charges was scheduled to begin.

 

Higgins wore a puffy black winter jacket with a hood and spoke very little, entering her guilty pleas very quietly, and indicating she understood she was giving up her right to a trial.

 

Under an agreement between the prosecutor, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, and defense attorney Ronald Bourget, Higgins’ sentence will be capped at six years in prison with all but five years suspended, and three years of probation.

 

Bourget told Justice Donald Marden he would be arguing that Higgins should spend less than five years behind bars initially.

 

A sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 3, 2012, in Androscoggin County Superior Court, and Higgins remains free on bail.

 

A condition of probation will be that Higgins pay up to $166,700 in restitution.

 

However, the chances of the lawyers group recouping that amount are slim. A home owned by Higgins and her husband is in foreclosure.

 

She was accused of forging the name of executive director Steven Prince between May 22, 2006, and Sept. 9, 2010, on 220 checks made payable to herself or to cash, and of doctoring the organization’s accounting records to disguise the theft.

 

The scheme was uncovered when Prince was notified a check he had written for $5,500 had bounced.

 

Robbin said an investigator found that over the most recent 18-month period — between January 2009 and September 10, 2010 — Higgins had 78 checks deposited directly to her personal account and paid out the funds to Zyna YoVille and Zynga Mafia Wars, which are social networking games played through Facebook.

 

“Apparently she was buying virtual coins for virtual property in a virtual world,” Robbin said.

 

Bourget said earlier that Higgins’ personal bank account record for February 2010 shows she had more than $4,000 in gaming-addiction expeditures.

 

After Wednesday’s hearing, Robbin said she will later argue that Higgins should spend an initial five years behind bars because Higgins has a previous conviction involving embezzlement.

 

Higgins was convicted in 1991 of theft by misapplication of property and theft by deception for taking $2,075 from the Gardiner area school district. In that scheme, Higgins kept lunch funds she was supposed to deposit daily at the bank. Higgins spent no time in jail for that felony offense.

 

The executive director and the treasurer of the Augusta-based Maine Trial Lawyers Association watched Higgins plead guilty on Wednesday, but said they had no comment.