AUBURN – A Gardiner woman who embezzled more than $166,000 from the Maine Trial Lawyers Association will spend three years in prison.

Justice Donald Marden sentenced Bettysue Higgins on Friday to serve three years of a six-year sentence. Higgins, 54, will be on probation for three years after her release, and she must pay $166,700 in restitution to her former employer.

“I need help,” Higgins, bundled in a puffy black jacket, told Marden during the hearing in Androscoggin County Superior Court. “I truly had no idea what I was doing.”

In December, Higgins pleaded guilty to forgery and theft after admitting to forging the name of the association’s executive director, Steven Prince, on 220 checks made payable to herself or to cash from May 22, 2006, to Sept. 9, 2010.

Higgins, who was the group’s administrative assistant, doctored its books to conceal the thefts. When Prince learned that a check he had written bounced, he discovered the scheme.

Much of the stolen money went to online gaming.

“Ms. Higgins’ strong provocation to YoVille and other online games is directly related to low self-esteem and a strong desire to be valued and accepted by others,” Higgins’ attorney, Ronald Bourget, read from a mental health evaluation.

An investigator found that from January 2009 to Sept. 10, 2010, Higgins had 78 checks deposited into her personal account and paid the money to YoVille and Mafia Wars, online games played through Facebook and MySpace.

Records of her bank transactions for February 2010 show she spent more than $4,000 on gaming in that month alone.

“She frittered it all away on virtual items to increase her status in a virtual world,” said Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, asking Marden to have Higgins serve five years in prison and pay full restitution of $166,700.

Michael Higgins, her husband, said he knew nothing of the embezzlement. He said he and his wife were in bankruptcy and foreclosure during that time. He said he is concerned about his wife’s mental health.

“We’ve been married 35 years. I love her,” he told Marden. “I ask for your leniency today, sir.”

Bourget argued that Higgins’ sentence should be 12 to 18 months, saying his client has been diagnosed with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, and has never served jail time.

Before handing down the sentence, Marden admonished past heads of the trial lawyers association, because no background check was done on Higgins before she went to work there in 2003.

A background check might have shown that in 1991 Higgins was convicted of theft by misapplication of property and theft by deception for taking more than $2,000 from the Gardiner-area school district. She kept lunch money that she was supposed to deposit. Higgins got a suspended sentence and spent no time in jail for that felony.

On Friday, both sides appeared somewhat unhappy with the sentence. Bourget didn’t rule out an appeal.

After the sentence was read, Robbin reached into her bag and pulled out bound papers, with images of the 220 checks Higgins forged.

Higgins told Marden that she had no malice against Prince or the association, but, Robbin said, “she does this 220 times. I guess I’m not sympathetic with that aspect of her apology.”

Prince said at the hearing that he and Higgins had a close friendship in and out of the office, even having family outings and holiday meals together.

“After considering her 15 months of silence over this matter, I find it easier to interpret her plea last month as the last tactical decision of a con artist,” Prince said.

He said her crime has damaged his organization and workload, and him personally. When Higgins worked there, she and Prince were the group’s only two paid employees. Because of the financial burden of the crime, the association hasn’t filled her position.

“I trust a little less, I laugh a little less and I’m a little less open, in matters both professional and personal,” Prince said.

Higgins tearfully struggled through a terse, barely audible statement to Marden, apologizing to the Maine Trial Lawyers Association.

“They’re good, honest, hardworking lawyers and they didn’t deserve this,” she said. “I promise I will continue to seek help.”

Marden admonished Higgins, given her conviction in 1991, saying she should have known the consequences.

“She knew darn well what was going to happen not ‘if’ she got caught, but ‘when’ she got caught,” Marden said before reading the sentence.

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 621-5632 or at:

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