JONESBORO, Ark. – An bitter legal battle was playing out between former State Senator Linda Collins and her ex-husband, former circuit judge Phil Smith when Collins was found dead at her residence on June 4, 2019.
A legal brief by Smith was the next item expected to be filed in the case. It was originally scheduled due on May 10, 2019 but two requests for extension were filed by the former judge, making it due on June 16, 2019.
An anonymous law enforcement source told NEA Report that Smith was questioned the day after Collins was found. Smith was released and was not being considered a suspect, we were told at the time (last week).
By any account, the divorce between Linda Collins-Smith (whom we are now referring to as Linda Collins, per her obituary) and Philip Smith was bitter, contentious, and consistently one thing: hostile. Court documents show they separated around June, 2016. The divorce decree was entered on October 12, 2018 and a Notice of Appeal filed November 13. CV-19-129 – LINDA COLLINS-SMITH V PHILIP SMITH, began with 1,018 pages of record being filed. It was an appeal by Collins against her ex-husband, Smith. The points of the appeal were three items:
- The trial court’s ruling as to the division of property was clearly erroneous.
- The trial court erred in finding Appellant (Collins) had dissipated marital funds.
- The trial court erred in awarding Appellee (Smith) attorney’s fees.
On February 07, 2019, the briefing “commenced,” meaning that both the parties would begin filling their arguments. Collins completed her filing on April 10 and Smith was due to complete his on June 16, before the appellant was found dead.
What Was Being Appealed
On September 12, 2018, as the end of the divorce proceedings neared, Collins testified on the witness stand that the couple sold their property, a Days Inn Hotel, in 2016 for $1,200,919.64. It would be this large transaction that was the focal point for most of the dispute.
“I immediately withdrew approximately $850,000,” Collins said. “I put that in an account solely in my name to protect the funds. I knew Phil would take part of it to move to Panama. He would take at least half. He never paid attention to how the business operated.”
Collins then said she paid “$500,000 or 600 in taxes” out of that money. She said she did not believe she engaged in excessive spending or personal purchases. She said she had car trouble and roof trouble, although she later said in the cross-examination she never used the money for these repairs. However, she continuously mentions her ex-husband’s association with the tax-haven country of Panama.
“I withdrew $56,000 from the Golden Years account and deposited into a non-marital account before the divorce complaint was filed to protect it from Phil,” Collins said. “He was erratic and ready to go to Panama.”
But in the cross-examination of Smith, he said he had been depositing his judicial retirement into the Golden Years account because it was being used as a joint bill-paying account.
“When I retired, I began depositing my judicial retirement check into this Golden Years account because, as far as I knew, we had plenty of money,” Smith said. “I didn’t know we didn’t. I just don’t know where it is.”
According to the testimony of Smith, the only account left with money in it was the account he said he had “taken steps to keep from her.” Somehow, Collins had dissipated $550,000 in 19 months. Much of the money was said to be used to prop up the failing Rock & Roll Motel, which was said to be unprofitable due to flooding (not damaged, but due to loss of people who needed a motel to stay in. Construction workers, etc…)
More interviews were conducted of both the former state senator and the former judge. Smith, who was examined again, said he preferred to sell all of the real estate and just divide the money.
“Frankly, we can’t cooperate,” Smith said in the redirect examination.
The court appeared to side with him. During a re-examination of Collins, the judge questioned how she could have lost over half a million dollars in less than two years. The judge even called her “dishonest.”
“This is kind of like all the questioning of you,” the judge said. “We just don’t get anywhere. I will tell you, and I’ll just be as honest as I’m going to be on the record, I don’t believe you. I do not believe that you have managed to dissipate that amount of money in 19 months. I think you have taken money. You have been dishonest, and you have not told either his attorney or him or the Court where it is.”
Collins responded that she tried to get the court the information during her campaign and afterward but had been in a hospital from surgery when she learned she had to appear again. The judge remarked that Collins had been out of the hospital for three weeks.
The court’s ruling was harshly against Collins.
“I believe Ms. Collins-Smith knows more about the parties’ finances,” begins the ruling. “I do not believe she has been honest. In his testimony, he said she was a hard working legislator, very intelligent and could mange business and did a good job. If he said she had integrity, I missed that. That is not my judgment at this point.”
The judge went on to say she has not been open about what happened to the proceeds of the sale of Day’s Inn. Although the court believed she paid expenses for both parties during that time, accounting for some of the monies spent, his judicial paycheck was also being deposited and the two had money-earning properties. The judge said maybe $100,000 was used to prop up the motel but beyond that, Collins had “like a million five” in her hands and “now they have $75,000 in the bank.”
The court ruled $380,000 was owed to the ex-judge by Collins. He was to keep her proceeds of property due to be auctioned off and the rest would be held in a judgement.
Missing Money Shows Up
Following the ruling, on September 14, Smith visited Collins at her home to conduct, by court decree, a walk-through to make a list of and collect items belonging to him. Despite numbers attempts by Smith and his attorneys, and even her attorneys too, Collins did not cooperate. She also appeared to defy the court by not splitting up bank accounts and then providing proof.
Then, the United States Treasury issued a check dated Oct. 4 for $428,522.84 to both Collins and Smith. She deposited it. Collins was ordered to turn over $400,000 to a trust account so the court could decide what should be done. $132,000 was taken out of the money before the remaining amount, $268K, was placed in a trust. Smith requested she be held in contempt and incarcerated in Pulaski County Jail.
Collins was held in contempt for not paying $400,000 over to Smith’s counsel, although we do not know if she was incarcerated. With the appeals process also playing out, the court made it clear to the Appellate Court that it considered Collins dishonest.
“The record should be clear,” the judge said. “I think some of it is confusion. I think she honestly cannot answer some of the questions. I think some of it is more than that. It is animus towards Mr. Smith and an unwillingness to account for everything she’s done.”
A request for a new trial or reconsideration by Collins was denied by the trial court. In the final ruling by the original trial court, on January 24, 2019, attorneys fees were awarded to Smith.
Appeal Filed in February
In her appeal, Collins said the division of property was erroneous. She also claimed the trial court erred in finding she had dissipated marital funds and finally, that the trial court erred in awarding her ex-husband attorneys fees.
CV-19-129, on appeal from Randolph County Circuit Court, is still listed as an active case. The last filing in the case was on May 15, 2019. The court granted Smith his request to extend the time allowed for his brief to be filed until June 16.
An anonymous law enforcement source told NEA Report that Smith was questioned within 24 hours of Collins being found dead but he was released. We’ve not been able to confirm this on-the-record.
No information has been made available in the case since the prosecutor sought a gag order. Henry Boyce, the Third Judicial District Prosecutor, wrote the order which was signed by Circuit Judge Harold Erwin. Both were colleagues of the ex-judge, Smith, for years.
Smith resigned his elected seat as circuit court judge in the Third Judicial District on Dec. 31, 2017. He lost his seat in disgrace after a complaint alleged then-Judge Smith used office computer equipment after hours for “extrajudicial activities.” Although no record has been found by this reporter detailing exactly what this was, a letter of reprimand was issued against the judge who also agreed to not serve in the judiciary again in the future. In that letter, it is mentioned he improperly used computer equipment during his divorce with Collins.