Former sheriff Charles Rinehart and two others entered guilty pleas to two counts of conspiracy to defraud and two counts of fraud against Alcorn County on Wednesday.
Rinehart entered an Alford plea in which the defendant pleads guilty but does not admit to the criminal act. The case deals with vehicle purchases for the sheriff's department.
The pleas came in Pontotoc County Circuit Court. District Attorney John Weddle said the defendants were there for hearings on motions before Judge Thomas Gardner in anticipation of a trial next week in Alcorn County but decided to go ahead and plead guilty.
Each of the the three were sentenced to 20 years but will be placed in the house arrest program as an alternative to incarceration.
Rinehart, 75, of Rolling Wood Circle, Corinth, was placed in the house arrest program for two years followed by five years of probation upon successful completion of house arrest.
Pamela Denise Null, 48, of Norman Road, Corinth, was placed in the house arrest program for two years followed by five years of probation.
Teddy Cleveland Null, 51, of Norman Road, Corinth, was placed in the house arrest program for one year followed by five years of probation.
During a lengthy investigation by the State Auditor’s Office centering around Dal Nelms, the former Second District supervisor, auditor investigators discovered what appeared to be fraudulent bids for the purchase of multiple vehicles by the county from Cars For Less, a business operated by Teddy and Denise Null. Further investigation revealed that Rinehart submitted to Alcorn County the Cars For Less bids along with fraudulent competitive bids prepared by Denise Null.
“Although the investigation did not produce additional charges involving stolen parts or proof that Rinehart benefitted from the transactions or that the county paid more for the vehicles than they should have,” said Weddle, “the bid laws are there for a reason, and violation of those laws should and did result in the defendants accepting responsibility for their actions.”
Rinehart’s attorney, Tony Farese, said the former sheriff always maintained his innocence.
“His actions in this matter was to try to provide the best cars at the cheapest price to save the county money,” said Farese. “He decided to purchase wrecked or salvage vehicles through Teddy Null, which, in the four counts that he pled guilty to and the 10 counts he was indicted for, it’s uncontradicted that Cars for Less was the cheapest bid. Unfortunately, Mr. Rinehart did err in relying on the Nulls to obtain legitimate second bids.”
He said Denise Null obtained the other bids through Copart, an online service.
All of the cars involved are still in service today, he said, except for a 2010 Crown Victoria that was wrecked while in service.
Farese said Rinehart felt the plea was in the best interest of his family.
“This is a result of not following the correct letter of the law in the bid process,” he said, “and for that error, Mr. Rinehart is certainly sorry and accepted responsibility since he was, in fact, responsible as sheriff.”
The four counts on which the subjects entered pleas involved a 2009 Chevrolet Trailblazer and a 2012 Chevrolet Tahoe.
The state auditor’s civil demand against Rinehart remains a separate matter, said Weddle, who expressed appreciation for the auditor’s office’s work in the case.
“The work they have done has resulted in numerous violations resolved before the court,” he said.
State Auditor Stacey Pickering thanked the DA’s staff for their work on the case.
“Without committed prosecutors, our job would not be effective. This case proves that no one is above the law, including Sheriffs,” he said.
Rinehart, who served eight years as sheriff, and the Nulls were arrested in June 2015 following grand jury indictments.