WASHINGTON — The Ruskin mail carrier who landed his lightweight gyrocopter on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol in April to protest how money corrupts U.S. politics pleaded guilty to a single felony on Friday.
Doug Hughes, 62, faces up to three years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000 for operating a gyrocopter without a license. While prosecutors have asked for no more than 10 months in prison, Hughes' lawyers will argue that he should get probation.
A judge will ultimately decide at his sentencing, scheduled for April 13 next year.
Prosecutors were concerned with that sentencing date because it's just two days from the one-year anniversary of Hughes' "Freedom Flight" and follows a march from the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., where protesters will hold a sit-in at the Capitol as an act of civil disobedience to protest how political campaigns are funded.
Hughes is slated to speak at the event, where organizers have asked for 1,000 volunteers who are willing to be arrested.
"It creates the conditions to (turn) the court into a circus," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tejpal Chawla.
But Hughes shot back at a news conference afterward.
"I disagree with anyone who thinks participating in representative democracy is a circus," he said.
As part of the plea deal, Hughes will be forced to forfeit his gyrocopter.
"That one was hard to let go," he said.
Hughes rejected two prior plea deals he felt were too harsh. He was originally charged with two felonies and four misdemeanors, which his attorney said was retaliation by prosecutors because Hughes embarrassed Washington D.C.-area law enforcement.
Hughes is also facing an $11,000 fine from the Federal Aviation Administration but is hoping his legal team can get that reduced. He is getting by on Social Security after being fired from the U.S. Postal Service for his flight through protected airspace. His private legal defense was paid for by donations to his cause. More than $10,000 was raised in a single day of fundraising.
Hughes was aware he could face serious repercussions when he took flight around noon on April 15 from Gettysburg, about an hour and a half away by air. He told the Tampa Bay Times in the weeks before the flight that he was even prepared to be shot down.
But, he said he was taking a stand on principle. He said he needed to do something big and bold, a stunt that would arrest the national news cycle and turn Americans' attention to an important, if boring, topic: campaign finance reform. His intention was to fly in and deliver 535 letters, one for each Congress member, which were strapped to his landing gear.
He got that attention as television cameras raced to the scene of his landing. But much of the reporting since his flight has focused on lax security in Washington D.C. Two weeks after Hughes' flight, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee called seven witnesses from different security agencies.
Nonetheless, as his court proceedings have moved forward, he has continued to receive media coverage, with the Associated Press and other news organizations reporting on each legal maneuver. He has also taken on a role in the campaign finance reform movement.
"People have been forwarding me stories and news editorials on campaign finance, and I never see my name," Hughes said. "That's a good thing. That means the issue has stuck, not the stunt."
Hughes didn't view the plea deal as a victory, but he thought it was the best legal outcome for himself. He was also happy to see his supporters Friday. Among them was Davis Barrows, 68, a D.C. resident who wanted to meet Hughes in person.
"He was risking his life to wake up America," Barrows said. "He's one of the brave. People like him are the reason why we can still sing the national anthem."
Hughes, who has a wife and adolescent daughter at home, has said he doesn't want to serve prison time.
Though the gyrocopter he paid $5,500 for is now government property, Hughes said he still hopes to get back the 535 letters he individually addressed to members of Congress.
He has some unfinished business. He's no longer a letter carrier, so if he gets them back, he'll put them in the mail instead of delivering them himself.
They're already stamped.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8650.