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Gyrocopter pilot Doug Hughes indicted on six federal charges (w/video)

Doug Hughes reads some of the letters of support that he has received since he landed his gyrocopter on the west lawn of the US Capitol last month.  Hughes will be in Washington D.C. Thursday for an arraignment on federal charges connected to the incident. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times]
Doug Hughes reads some of the letters of support that he has received since he landed his gyrocopter on the west lawn of the US Capitol last month. Hughes will be in Washington D.C. Thursday for an arraignment on federal charges connected to the incident. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published May 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — Doug Hughes, the Ruskin mail carrier who flew his gyrocopter into restricted airspace over Washington, D.C., last month to make a political statement, has been indicted by a federal grand jury.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said Wednesday that Hughes, 61, faces six charges connected to the high-profile April 15 incident in which he flew his gyrocopter through Washington and landed on the West Lawn of the Capitol.

He faces up to 9 ½ years in prison.

Nevertheless, he is confident that his actions have had the intended result: to raise awareness of the role of money in politics.

"I am more convinced than ever that I did the right thing," Hughes said in a Wednesday evening interview.

The charges include two felonies: one count each of operating as an airman without an airman's certificate and violating registration requirements involving aircraft. In addition, he was indicted on four misdemeanor counts: three counts of violation of national defense airspace, and one of operating a vehicle falsely labeled as a postal carrier.

If Hughes is convicted of either of the two felonies, he will be required to forfeit his gyrocopter to the federal government.

Hughes called his potential sentence "excessive" because of the nature of his action: an act of civil disobedience where no one was hurt, and no property was damaged.

"How is that worth 9 ½ years?" he said. "I think the prosecutor has an uphill battle."

Hughes will appear in federal court again this afternoon for his arraignment. He expects to see fellow supporters of his cause at the hearing.

Hughes said he is not certain what will happen at the arraignment. But he said he is open to the idea of a plea bargain, if it means no jail time. But he also is prepared for the possibility that his case could go in front of a jury.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times before his flight, Hughes said he wanted to protest the influence of money in politics, describing himself as a combination of circus showman P.T. Barnum and American Revolution patriot Paul Revere.

Upon landing, he was immediately arrested by Capitol Police. After an initial court appearance, he was released to his home in Ruskin, where he has remained on house detention since. He is on paid leave from his job as a U.S. postal worker.

Hughes said Wednesday he was not acting as a Postal Service representative when he landed on the Capitol lawn — though he was carrying letters to members of Congress, and his gyrocopter carried the Postal Service logo.

Although the Postal Service does not publicly support his action, "they probably should," Hughes said, adding that money in politics is at least partially to blame for the organization's financial troubles.

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The gyrocopter incident was the subject of another hearing on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, with members of the Committee on House Administration questioning the head of the U.S. Capitol Police. The discussion lacked the hostility of a previous hearing, but members wondered why there wasn't a more urgent response to an email a Tampa Bay Times reporter sent about Hughes' flight.

"Who knows what the intent of this guy is," said Rep. Rich Nugent, R-Spring Hill, adding that his staff was able to watch Hughes' Internet stream of his flight to the Capitol grounds — which the Capitol Police said they were unable to do.

Amid the debate, lawmakers have suggested that the laws under which Hughes faced charges should be updated with tougher penalties.

When Hughes was first charged in April, he faced fewer counts and a possible sentence of fewer than five years in prison.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.