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Local optometrist agrees to lesser charge

RALEIGH – A Murfreesboro optometrist escaped an active prison sentence here Tuesday by pleading guilty to a lesser charge.

Michael Scott Edwards, who owns optometry offices in Murfreesboro and Ahoskie, entered a plea of obstruction of justice just prior to opening arguments being heard in a case at Wake County Superior Court. In return for the plea, four counts of perjury were dropped.

After accepting the plea, Judge Ronald Stephens sentenced Edwards to 6-8 months in prison. However, the active term was suspended upon the conditions that Edwards serve two years of supervised probation. He was also ordered to pay the North Carolina Board of Elections $10,000 in lieu of the costs incurred during their investigation that led Edwards to be accused of filing false campaign reports.

Edwards was also instructed to perform 100 hours of community service. He also agreed not to serve as a treasurer or caretaker of money for any type of organization.

The case stemmed from investigations linking former NC House Speaker Jim Black, a Charlotte optometrist, with Edwards, who ran the Political Action Committee (PAC) for the North Carolina Optometric Society in 2003. A PAC is a private group organized to elect or defeat government officials in order to promote legislation, often supporting the group’s special interests.

According to state law, no political action committee can contribute more than $4,000 in any election to a candidate. However, during a North Carolina State Board of Elections hearing conducted in February of last year, Black admitted he wrote in the name ‘Michael Decker’ on a $4,000 check from the cash management account of Edwards in January 2003. After Decker received the $4,000 from Black, drawn from Edwards’ personal account, he received several $100 campaign checks from the PAC a month later with the payee line of the check left blank.

Decker, a former member of the North Carolina House of Representatives, received checks from the Optometric Society’s PAC after he switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party just before the start of the 2003 legislative session. By joining the Democrats, Decker deadlocked the state House, which allowed Black to retain his position as Speaker.

At the Board of Elections hearing last year, Edwards and Decker cited their Fifth Amendment rights to not self incriminate and declined to testify.

Twelve other state optometrists did testify at the hearing. They said they gave campaign checks to the Optometric Society’s PAC that left blank the date they signed them and the line indicating the recipient. An investigation revealed that months after the checks were forwarded to the Optometric Society’s PAC, under Edwards’ control, four checks, each worth $100, wound-up in Decker’s hands and were cashed. They did not go into Decker’s campaign account and they were not recorded in his campaign finance reports.

Several optometrists testified they entrusted Edwards to decide how to distribute the political contributions. They further testified this method of distributing campaign contributions has been practiced for years.