The Hempstead County Quorum Court meets tonight and on the agenda is the Legislative Audit for 2017 which, among other things, brings up a controversy that has followed former Judge Haskell Morse for the last 18 months. That controversy is the use of the county-owned Ford Platinum Edition King Ranch F-250 by Judge Morse for a 4,109-mile vacation to Yellowstone National Park in September of 2017.
During the Quorum Court meeting on September 29, 2017, following his return from vacation, Judge Morse admitted he used the truck to travel out of state and visit Yellowstone. Morse brought the subject up himself at the end of the meeting. After a public confrontation with members of the Quorum Court and the public where he defended his actions, the Quorum Court voted to request a Legislative Audit from the State. Shortly after the meeting, On October 2, Morse issued a letter of apology to the public and paid the county $2,198, based off of the IRS approved mileage rate.
In addressing the subject, the 2017 Arkansas Legislative Audit of the Hempstead County government cited a section from an opinion issued by former Attorney General Mark Pryor (Op. Att’y Gen. no. 2000-243) which said, “the personal use of a county vehicle is permissible only when it is incidental to a use that fulfills a public purpose.”
Pryor went on in the opinion to say, “If the funds used to purchase the car came from tax revenues raised for the express purpose of financing the official county transportation and further if any personal benefit could not be characterized as “incidental” to a public purpose, I believe using the vehicle for an unofficial purpose would violate Ark, Const. art. XVI, section 11, which provides:
‘No tax shall be levied except in pursuance of law, and every law imposing a tax shall state distinctly the object of the same; and no moneys arising from a tax levied for one purpose shall be used for any other purpose.’”
Whether this means Morse faces possible criminal charges, we do not know. Prosecuting Attorney Christi McQueen, whose office would bring charges if it is found to be warranted, said she was unable to comment at this time as to whether Morse’s actions constituted an abuse of public trust or would result in action by her office.