AUGUSTA — A former administrative assistant for the Maine Trial Lawyers Association admitted Wednesday 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 quietly while 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 will be arguing that Higgins should initially spend less than five years behind bars.

A sentencing hearing is set for Jan. 3 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 during the most recent 18-month period — between January 2009 and September 2010 — Higgins had 78 checks deposited directly to her personal account and paid out the money to Zynga 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 expenditures.

After Wednesday’s hearing, Robbin said she will later argue that Higgins should spend an initial five years behind bars 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. In that scheme, 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 for those offenses, but was placed 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 following the court hearing that they had no comment.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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