May 31, 2011

Lawyers group now suing bank due to alleged embezzlement

By Betty Adams
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- The Maine Trial Lawyers Association, which claims former employee Bettysue Higgins embezzled $166,000, is suing Bank of America, saying Higgins was never authorized to set up online banking -- which she allegedly used to conceal her thefts -- and should not have been allowed to cash checks made out to her.

Higgins, 54, of Gardiner, the former administrative assistant in the two-person association office in Augusta, has pleaded not guilty to theft and forgery. Her criminal case is pending in Kennebec County Superior Court.

The association successfully sued Higgins recently, winning a judgment of $170,322.81 against her in Augusta District Court. Now it is going after the North Carolina-based Bank of America, N.A., seeking to recoup its losses.

Attorneys Peter DeTroy and Kelly Hoffman represent the Maine Trial Lawyers Association in both civil cases.

"We feel that Bank of America should not have allowed her to go to online banking and stop paper statements," Hoffman said. "She was not an authorized signatory."

In the most recent lawsuit, the nonprofit membership association describes a "scheme of embezzlement" between 2006 and 2010 in which Higgins allegedly forged executive director Steven Prince's signature on 220 unauthorized checks. Three checks were written to "Cash"; the others listed her as payee.

The lawsuit said the bank's online services enabled Higgins to hide her actions.

The association makes claims against the bank for breach of contract and breach of good faith, as well as negligence.

"The forged checks were not properly payable because the drawer's signature was not authorized," the lawsuit says.

It also says the bank should have noticed that something was amiss: "Although (Bank of America) knew that Ms. Higgins was receiving an increase in compensation between $15,000 to $55,000 annually from a nonprofit corporation and that there was an extraordinary increase in the number of checks cashed by her annually, defendant never flagged a single check, instead cashing each and every check presented by Ms. Higgins."

Eric Asquith, a Boston attorney, filed Bank of America's response in court, denying allegations of improper procedure, maintaining the association itself was at fault, and saying the claim is barred by the statute of limitations.

The superior court civil case, filed May 3 in Kennebec County Superior Court, is assigned to Justice Robert Murray.

The district court case continues as well, as the association's attorneys seek to receive the cash awarded in the judgment against Higgins.

"Ms. Higgins did not respond to any of the pleadings in Augusta District Court," Hoffman said on Wednesday. "It was deemed admitted that all those checks were forged and incorrectly paid." She said the next step is a disclosure hearing at which attorneys plan to ask Higgins where the money went and how she plans to repay the missing funds, including the fees and interest.

At least one question, Hoffman said, will ask whether Higgins spent some of the money in online gaming. According to former members of a gaming club she belonged to, Higgins' online game of choice was YoVille, which is played through either Facebook or MySpace.

Her fellow gamers said she continues to play daily.

Higgins appeared to spend most of her time in that virtual world, buying homes, outfits, furniture, etc. She told fellow gamers -- almost all of whom are out of state -- she was a prominent attorney.

In real life, her Gardiner home is in foreclosure. She was fired Oct. 8, 2010, by the Maine Trial Lawyers Association, and she faces up a maximum of 10 years in jail on each of the two criminal charges.

Her next court date in that case is 9:45 a.m. June 7.

Betty Adams -- 621-5631

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