Even as the Hempstead Quorum Court developed and passed a counter offer for the Farmer's Bank Building, a dispute over the County Judge's use of the County Judge's truck caused ripples Thursday night and resulted in the Justices requesting a Legislative Audit of the County Judge's office, and later, a stunning apology from Haskell Morse by Monday morning.
Even as the Hempstead Quorum Court developed and passed a counter offer for the Farmer’s Bank Building, a dispute over the County Judge’s use of the County Judge’s truck caused ripples Thursday night and resulted in the Justices requesting a Legislative Audit of the County Judge’s office, and later, a stunning apology from Haskell Morse by Monday morning.
Over the past three weeks, concerned citizens had voiced to several Justices as well as the Hope Star that Morse had used the recently purchased $65,000 County Judge’s truck for a vacation trip to Montana; those concerns were confirmed Thursday night in a remarkable exchange between Justice David Clayton and Morse, after Morse had Prosecuting Attorney Christi McQueen read a series of pages of state laws and court rulings on the division of responsibilities in county government.
“And would you mind telling us why you are doing this,” Clayton said, looking at Morse after McQueen had read the duties of the branches of government for some 20 minutes.
Morse said there had been concerns regarding his use of the County Judge’s truck for a vacation.
“And is it true?” Clayton asked, to which Morse replied “Yes.”
“And where did you go,” Clayton asked back, and Morse confirmed he traveled to Yellowstone National Park.
Morse cited several IRS laws and rulings as well as prescient from other counties as his contention that he had not violated any laws.
Clayton said, “I don’t care about the IRS or rulings, it looks bad; it just looks bad.”
Morse said he paid for all the gas used on the trip personally, but in response, Justice Ed Darling asked who carried liability insurance on the truck while Morse had it out of state, and he asked that even a gas or mileage was enough considering tires, oil changes, and wear-and-tear on the truck.
A citizen, Jessie Evans, said “Do you feel any moral responsibility to the citizens of this county? Just because it is legal, doesn’t make it right.”
Blake Montgomery asked if criminal charges were in order, and asked if McQueen would consider investigating.
McQueen said the Legislative Audit was charged with investigating activities of county and city governments, and based on their findings, they could issue a referral to her office.
On Monday, Morse had issued a statement in an open letter, which is printed in its entirety on page 4 in today’s print edition of the Hope Star (and is also online with this story), in which he said he wrote a check using the standard IRS mileage rate to the Hempstead County Treasurer’s Office for reimbursement for the use of the county vehicle.
In the same letter, as he did Thursday at the Quorum Court meeting, Morse also said, “Following what I believed to be legal under IRS Rule 14, I took the county vehicle on vacation out of state, which was my understanding was legal as part of the fringe benefits in the IRS rules.”
For its part, the Quorum Court voted unanimously to have a Legislative Audit of the activities of the Hempstead County Judge in regards to the truck and investigate any possible wrong doing.
Morse and the new County Judge’s truck has been a source of controversy since the spring. Morse had purchased the truck on April 25, valued at $64,786, and the purchase drew considerable scrutiny from the Justices at the June 22 Quorum Court meeting.
In a previous interview with the Hope Star, Morse maintained that the price that was eventually paid for the new truck after trade in was $36,611 plus $1,611 for a bed cover and mats. Documentation on the sale examined by the Hope Star at that time through a Freedom of Information Request confirmed Morse’s statements.
Even at Thursday’s meeting, however, one citizen pointed out that Morse could have purchased a truck on state contract for $31,000, a sentiment also expressed at the June 22 Quorum Court meeting.