AUGUSTA — A former administrative assistant for the Maine Trial Lawyers Association admitted Wednesday to embezzling $166,000 from the group, and a prosecutor said the woman spent much of it on online social-networking games.

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

Higgins spoke very little, entering her guilty pleas quietly while indicating she understood she was giving up her right to a trial.

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

Bourget told Justice Donald Marden he will argue that Higgins should initially spend less than five years behind bars.

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

A condition of probation will be that Higgins pay as much as $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 from May 22, 2006, to 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 that a check he had written for $5,500 had bounced.

Robbin said an investigator found that from January 2009 to September 2010, Higgins had 78 checks deposited directly to her personal account and paid out the money to Zynga YoVille and Zynga Mafia Wars, 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 made more than $4,000 in gaming-addiction expenditures.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Robbin said she will argue that Higgins should spend an initial five years in prison because she 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. Higgins kept lunch money she was supposed to deposit daily at the bank. Higgins pleaded no contest to the charges and spent no time in jail, but was put on probation for three years.

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

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at:

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