WASHINGTON — For 13 years, Doug Hughes delivered the mail for the United States Postal Service without issue. Now he's being sent to live in a prison cell for trying to deliver the most important message of his life.
The former mailman from Ruskin, who landed a gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol building last year to protest how political campaigns are financed, was sentenced Thursday in U.S. District Court to 120 days in prison. Hughes also received one year of probation, and he can't enter the Capitol building or the White House without special permission from the court.
Hughes, 62 and hard of hearing, sat stoic in a too-big suit as the judge announced his sentence. Hughes' 12-year-old daughter, sitting with volunteers from the Code Pink activist group, nearly started crying.
"If you cry," said Hughes' wife, Alena, "I'm going to cry."
Hughes' sentencing comes after two weeks of organized demonstrations and marches for campaign finance reform and some 1,400 arrests for civil disobedience, including the two founders of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Many were inspired by Hughes' "Freedom Flight," as he calls it. Despite the numbers, the protests garnered little media attention.
"I believe in nonviolence and will continue to be nonviolent," Hughes said before sentencing, invoking Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. "Am I remorseful? Yes, I am."
Hughes, who has no criminal record, apologized to law enforcement, citizens of Washington and his family for the "enormous uncertainty" his flight brought to their lives. But, he said, he didn't regret the flight. "It provided me a forum for my concerns."
Prosecutors asked the judge for 10 months. But in sentencing Hughes to four months – which his supporters said was still extreme for a stunt in which no one was hurt and no property was damaged – U.S. District Court Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said there was "an important difference" between Hughes' flight and the nonviolent civil disobedience of people such as Parks and the Freedom Riders.
"Their civil disobedience was directly related to the laws they were protesting," she said. "His civil disobedience was totally unrelated to his political cause."
He wasn't protesting unfair Federal Aviation Administration laws, for instance, she said.
"I don't think you appreciate how dangerous your conduct was and how you could have injured yourself and others," said Kollar-Kotelly, adding that the sentence was "not a commentary on your political message."
"You did take a calculated risk," she said. "You are now facing the consequences of this."
But Hughes and his attorneys countered by pointing to Henry David Thoreau, who refused to pay taxes because the U.S. government allowed slavery.
"Most civil disobedience is breaking a law indirectly related to the law you're protesting," said Hughes' lawyer Mark Goldstone.
Hughes' purpose was to get enough attention to arrest the 24-hour news cycle and direct Americans' focus to an important, if boring, cause: how big spending in elections deprives individuals of their vote.
Prosecutors, who asserted Hughes made his flight to gain fame, said Hughes flew within miles of several airports between his launch in Gettysburg, Pa., and the Capitol, and came within .7 miles of a commercial Delta flight near Reagan National Airport. Slides of radar showed Hughes' lightweight craft in some proximity to air traffic outside protected airspace, but no one could say for sure how close he was.
Hughes' lawyer said prosecutors were trying to instill fear in the judge's mind.
"The closer we got to sentencing, the closer his gyrocopter got to colliding with another aircraft," Goldstone said.
He pointed out that the Senate's report on homeland security after the flight contained "not one word about a near collision" and that no pilot ever reported seeing the 250-pound, open-cockpit flying machine.
Because Hughes' altitude was never recorded, the judge couldn't say with certainty that he had encroached on any flight paths.
The judge did point out that during Congressional testimony, Joseph Clancy, director of the Secret Service, said Hughes lied about his plan when agents visited his home in 2013, more than a year before his flight. But Hughes denied that. And his wife, Alena, and best friend, Mike Shanahan, said after sentencing that they, too, were interviewed and told investigators exactly what Hughes was up to. Hughes said Clancy either didn't know those details, or he perjured himself to cover for his agency.
A Senate Homeland Security Committee report after the flight said the Secret Service and the Capitol Police didn't investigate Hughes well enough. The agencies responsible for policing restricted airspace had communication breakdowns. The Federal Aviation Administration said Hughes' aircraft appeared on radar to be a bird or a balloon. Law enforcement authorities have been studying ways to make sure there is not a repeat.
"What Doug did has p----- off a lot of rich and important people," said Shanahan, a former co-worker at the post office who drove Hughes from Florida to Washington.
Hughes originally faced six criminal charges and nine years in prison for violating protected airspace and landing his gyrocopter on the Capitol lawn April 15, 2015. He pleaded guilty in November to flying without a pilot's license, a felony carrying a maximum of three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
As part of the deal, Hughes forfeited his craft to the government. He was put on house arrest and lost his job with the postal service.
While awaiting his sentencing, he had run to unseat South Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
Because of a lack of time to organize a campaign and raise funds, Hughes withdrew and threw his support behind Tim Canova, a law school professor and political activist who is running against Wasserman Schultz in the Democratic primary.
His felony conviction means he will never vote again, sit on a jury, hold public office, or possess a firearm in Florida unless he successfully petitions the governor and two cabinet members to restore that right.
Hughes created his original plan 2 1/2 years before his flight. He learned to fly a gyrocopter at an airfield in rural Wauchula. He told select friends of his plan, but word got out. The Secret Service questioned him at home, but when he never heard anything else, he took off from Gettysburg for the flight that lasted about 1 hour, 20 minutes.
His plan was to deliver 535 letters, one to each member of Congress, demanding they root big money out of politics. The letters demand that lawmakers refuse to take large contributions from wealthy donors and corporations, which he feels have corrupted the political process and weakened the importance of individual votes.
"I'm demanding reform and declaring a voter's rebellion in a manner consistent with Jefferson's description of rights in the Declaration of Independence," he wrote in the letters. "As a member of Congress, you have three options. 1. You may pretend corruption does not exist. 2. You may pretend to oppose corruption while you sabotage reform. 3. You may actively participate in real reform."
He failed to deliver them last April because Capitol Police immediately arrested him after he landed. He planned to try again Thursday or today, this time by foot. But he's prohibited from going to the Capitol now.
When he left the courthouse, a gaggle of television cameras and newspaper reporters were waiting. He stepped before a bank of microphones, flanked by his lawyers. He said he didn't agree that he posed a risk to commercial flights or people on the ground. He said he never lied to the Secret Service. He said it wasn't his intent to break any more laws, but he is still compelled to get big money out of politics.
"I'm certainly not totally pleased, nor am I terribly disappointed in the (sentence)," he said, adding that he would face his prison time without protest.
Hughes suspects he will serve his time in a minimum security facility in Florida so his family can visit.
Asked if he was sorry for the flight, he said: "I haven't apologized in the past and I'm not apologizing now."
One bystander who happened on the scene started to cheer.
"Doug Hughes is an American hero!" someone shouted.
"What about your letters, Mr. Hughes?" a reporter asked.
"I will be talking to my attorneys about getting my letters back," he said, "and delivering them by mail."
"The letters," he said as TV cameras rolled, "will get delivered."
Contact Ben Montgomery at (727) 893-8650 or [email protected]