- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Alcorn County Sheriff Charles Rinehart was indicted Monday on charges that he conspired with the owners of a used car dealership to falsify documents and steer business to them.

A grand jury charged Rinehart, along with used car dealers Teddy C. Null and Pamela D. Null, with five counts of conspiracy and five counts of submitting false documents to a government. All are felonies.

State Auditor Stacey Pickering, who announced the charges, said Rinehart and the Nulls worked together between 2012 and 2015 to submit false quotes for six vehicles. The sheriff’s office won approval from county supervisors to purchase all six from Cars for Less, the Nulls’ business, paying $68,250.

All three were arrested and released on $25,000 bond. A phone call to Cars for Less wasn’t answered Monday. A message left for Rinehart at his home wasn’t immediately returned.

Rinehart continues to act as sheriff. His term ends in January, and voters will choose his successor in November.

Pickering said Mississippi law does not provide for the suspension of an elected official who is indicted.

Rinehart and the Nulls are scheduled to be arraigned July 1.

In each case, investigators said Rinehart submitted quotes from other used car dealers showing that the Nulls’ business was offering a lower price. In Mississippi, a government agency can make a purchase between $5,000 and $50,000 with at least two written bids. But Pickering said that in this case, the Nulls were making up fake bids from other local used car dealers, so that Cars for Less always offered the best price. Pickering released documents showing the competing quotes were generally in the same format and used the same typeface as the Cars for Less quotes.

Pickering also said that supervisors didn’t realize that they were buying vehicles with salvage titles, meaning they had been seriously damaged before the Nulls repaired them at their body shop. The auditor said investigators are trying to determine whether the Nulls were repairing the vehicles with stolen parts.

Mississippi Department of Corrections records show Teddy Null served about six years in prison after he was sentenced in 2002 for charges including operating a chop shop, possession of stolen or altered vehicle parts and receiving stolen property. Pamela Null served about three years in prison after she was sentenced in 2005 for conspiracy, receiving stolen property and forgery.

Pickering said it’s unclear whether Rinehart, who isn’t seeking re-election, derived any personal benefit from the alleged scheme.

“We do expect during the prosecution to find the answer to that question,” he said.

Rinehart faces a separate demand letter from the auditor’s office that charges he misspent almost $152,000 out of various jail funds. After interest and investigation charges, Pickering is demanding Rinehart personally repay $181,000. The auditor said investigators haven’t found any embezzlement there so far, only mismanagement.

Pickering said the charges grew from an earlier investigation that led to the indictments of County Supervisor Jimmy “Dal” Nelms, a county purchasing clerk and three vendors. Those men have pleaded not guilty. He said that Monday’s indictments are not related to the corruption case that ensnared former Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps, though Pickering has previously said Alcorn County is a focus of further investigation in the prison contracting scandal.

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This story has been corrected to give the proper spelling of Rinehart’s name.

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