AUBURN — A judge Friday sentenced a former secretary at the Maine Trial Lawyers Association to three and a half years in prison for embezzling more than $166,000 and spending much of it on virtual possessions on an online fantasy game.
Bettysue Higgins, 54, of Gardiner was sentenced by Justice Donald Marden in Androscoggin County Superior Court to six years, with two and a half years suspended, plus three years of probation. Marden also ordered her to repay the group the $166,717 that she stole by writing 220 checks to herself or cash — the checks ranging in amounts from $86 to more than $1,900 — while forging Executive Director Steve Prince's signature over a four-year period. He discovered the deception when a check bounced.
Higgins apologized to the members of the organization that included the group's president and executive director who attended the hearing and spoke to Justice Marden before he imposed the sentence.
Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who heads up the financial crimes department for the state, was seeking to have Higgins spend five years in prison.
"We need to send a message to people who handle other people's money that every time they take cash they're not entitled to or issue themselves a check for money they're not authorized to take, they will go to jail."
Higgins' attorney, Ronald Bourget, asked the judge to sentence his client to as little as a year in jail, plenty of a deterrent for someone who has never been behind bars, he said.
Higgins pleaded guilty last month to theft and forgery, each count punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Bourget and Robbin agreed on a cap of six years with all but five years suspended. Higgins was allowed to argue for a shorter sentence.
Robbin told the judge that an investigation showed Higgins had used the stolen money in the past two years of her employment to "fritter it all away on virtual items to enhance her status in a virtual world created by Zynga, a computer game company." Higgins also had used some of the money early on at high-end department stores and for travel.
She had played a game through Facebook where her avatar, "Queen Mom Betty" or "Queenie" lived in YoVille and accumulated virtual coins she could spend on virtual items, including virtual real estate, according to court records.
Higgins was convicted in 1991 of theft by deception and theft by misapplication in the theft of more than $2,000 from the Gardiner area school district, Robbin told the judge. Higgins didn't serve any jail time for that conviction, which should have served as a deterrent, Robbin said.
"But in this case, that didn't work for Bettysue Higgins," Robbin said. "The lesson she appeared to have taken away from her last encounter with the criminal justice system is that crime, in fact, does pay."
Robbin said Higgins didn't only steal the money belonging to the lawyers' group. She also secretly accessed the group's online accounts where she transferred money from the group's political action committee account and CD account to cover the checks she wrote. She then created a fictitious account that showed no record of the embezzled money, Robbin said.
Prince called Higgins a "con artist," who damaged the organization with her betrayal, as well as his friendship with her. He said she never offered any regrets to the group's membership and "she never offered to repay a single cent of her theft."
John McArdle, president of the organization, said the services the group offers to help the indigent were interrupted by Higgins' theft. The money she took "virtually wiped out" the group's account, he said. It's had to scramble since then to cover its financial obligations and has been forced to undertake a re-examination of its accounts in order to comply with tax laws, he said.
Her husband, Michael, was seeking leniency, telling the judge that he had been unaware of his wife's apparent addiction to the online game and blamed himself for not being more attentive to her needs.
"I'm completely befuddled," he said.
He said he was "really concerned" about his wife's mental health, which Bourget characterized as marked by "significant" depression, anxiety stemming from "low self-esteem and a strong desire to be valued by others."
Higgins said she was "so very sorry" for her actions and called the members of the group "good, honest, hard-working lawyers" and said, "They don't deserve this."
Bourget said he planned to review the judge's sentence with Higgins to determine whether they would appeal.