David Howell Probate Case Ends With Whimper

A convoluted probate case that started with a bombshell revelation more than 11 years ago concluded with a whimper Wednesday morning.

Pulaski County Probate Judge Mary McGowan approved, with no objections and little discussion, the final distribution of assets from the estate of M. David Howell Jr. Once a banking wunderkind, Howell, 54, died of drug overdose in a Beverly Hills hotel in October 2002, just as his $84 million Ponzi scheme was unraveling back home in Little Rock.

From the bench, McGowan approved estate administrator Robin Mays' petition to pay all remaining costs and then distribute the balance of Howell's estate — estimated at $472,800 — to his victims and other approved claimants. Three of them — Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Little Rock businessman Robert Vogel and Hot Springs bank investor Richard Smith — were represented at the hearing.

"Excellent work," McGowan said to Mays, a retired circuit judge who replaced Howell's sister as administrator of his estate shortly after the case was filed.

Mays and the lawyer representing the estate, Stuart Hankins, had secured a closing letter from the Internal Revenue Service, the last piece necessary before turning loose of the remaining assets.

"Well, it's a miracle," the judge said. "If it had not been for Judge Mays, we would not be here and it would go on into infinity."

McGowan called the case both a "nightmare" and "an amazing journey" and compared it with Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce, the fictional dispute over an inheritance described in Charles Dickens' "Bleak House." In that story, the inheritance at issue is eventually consumed by the cost of the litigation.

The Howell estate was also diminished by a decade of litigation costs. The 58 parties whose claims for $38.3 million were approved by the court have already split up $2 million and are expected to receive additional amounts ranging from $19 (Pulaski County Treasurer) to $68,253 (Robert Vogel of Little Rock).

In the end, they will receive about 6.5 cents for each dollar they were due.

"There would have been a whole lot more money in the estate if we had not had to fight so many things," Mays told Arkansas Business last year.