AUGUSTA — A former employee of the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, accused of embezzling $166,000 from that organization, will go to trial in December, a judge said on Monday.
Bettysue Higgins, 54, of Gardiner, was in Kennebec County Superior Court on Monday for a proceeding that was expected to resolve the charges of forgery and theft by unauthorized taking or transfer.
In anticipation of Higgins’ conviction, Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin filed a sentencing memo with the court, asking that Higgins serve five years behind bars for the offenses.
However, on Monday, Higgins’s attorney Ronald Bourget said Higgins wanted a jury trial on the charges.
Higgins was in court with her husband, but did not address the judge directly.
Justice Donald Marden said the trial will be set for two days in December.
Higgins is accused of embezzling the money by writing 220 association checks to herself or cash between May 2006 and Sept. 10, 2010, and forging the signature of the executive director, Steve Prince.
Higgins was fired in October 2010 shortly after Prince learned that there was not enough money to cover a check he wrote from the group’s Political Action Committee account, and an investigation ensued.
Higgins had worked as a bookkeeper for about eight years in the two-person Augusta office of the lawyers’ group, a nonprofit professional trade association with goals of promoting civil justice and excellence in trial advocacy, among other things.
Outside the court on Monday, Bourget said he intended to challenge the trial lawyer association’s accounting and hiring practices at the trial, as well as the political action committee’s actions.
When Higgins was hired at the association, she had a 1991 felony conviction for theft by misapplication of property for stealing more than $2,000 from the lunch program at the junior high school in Gardiner, where she had been an employee.
And in a court action related to the current case, the Maine Trial Lawyers Association sued Bank of America, claiming Higgins was not authorized to enroll in online banking services or to redirect the bank statement to herself rather than to the association’s executive director.
The parties agreed to a dismissal in that case, which was filed in Kennebec County Superior Court on Oct. 26. “(Bank of America) paid an undisclosed amount to settle the case without admitting any liability,” attorney Kelly M. Hoffman said on Monday. Hoffman is an attorney representing the trial lawyers association.
In a separate attempt to regain its missing money, the association sued Higgins in Augusta District Court, winning a judgment against her of more than $170,000.
However, it appears unlikely Higgins will be able to repay that sum. Her home is in foreclosure, and she does not appear to have a job.
Her personal checking account statement from February 2010, when she was employed by the trial lawyers association, shows $4,000 went to pay for online games, which her attorney classified as “gaming addiction expenditures.” Bourget said other months show similar amounts also paid to Offerpal Media.
Fellow gamers have said the money was spent to enhance Higgins’ online character, Queenie, in the Zynga game YoVille.
More recently, Higgins switched characters and is now known as Maggie Darling, said Michael Cullen, who heads one of clubs where Higgins was a member. Cullen said Higgins’ profile number remains the same as when she was identified as Queenie.
Cullen said Monday that Higgins is playing online games several times a week rather than daily as she was in the past. She most recently was in a game on Thursday.
Higgins underwent a psychological evaluation ordered by the court to determine whether there are issues of criminal responsibility.
“Discovery materials from the state corroborate that there exists evidence of mental health disorder or psychosis which would negate criminal responsibility regarding the crimes charged,” Bourget told the court.
Robbin said it appears that there is no problem since the case is set for trial.
“It is not a mitigating factor that her purchase of items in a virtual gaming world took on an ‘addictive quality’ in the later years of the embezzlement,” Robbin wrote in the sentencing memo. “Her embezzlement started long before her purchases in the online games. . . Once she had access to MTLA’s funds, she could purchase items from a virtual world that had no real world value. If it had been her own money that she had been spending, she likely would not have bee quite as lavish in her virtual spending.” Robbin asked the court to impose a sentence of six years in prison, with all but five years suspended, and three years’ probation, with the condition that Higgins repay restitution of up to $166,000.
Betty Adams — 621-5631