Gyrocopter pilot pleads guilty to federal charges – that was kind of the point

Douglas Hughes could face 10 months in prison for flying a his gyrocopter through restricted airspace and landing on the lawn of the US Capitol.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Douglas Hughes, who flew a gyrocopter through the National Mall before landing on Capitol, arrives for a plea hearing at the federal courthouse in Washington, Friday. Hughes is expected to plead guilty to a felony, operating a gyrocopter without a license.

He audaciously flew his single-seater aircraft through one of the country’s most restricted airspaces, defiantly landed it on the US Capitol’s West Lawn only to be greeted by a massive law enforcement response, and seemingly has no regrets about it now.

Douglas Hughes entered a guilty plea in federal court in Washington D.C. on Friday for the charge of operating a gyrocopter without a license.

"I have always accepted that there would be consequences for what I did," Hughes told The Associated Press.

The felony carries a potential for up to three years in prison, but prosecutors said they would not request more than 10 months if he pleaded guilty, according to Mr. Hughes’s attorney Mark Goldstone. Hughes was originally charged with offenses that could have landed him in jail for nearly a decade.

But why did he do it?

At the time of his arrest, Hughes was a mail carrier for the US Postal Service. He pulled the stunt on April 15 to bring awareness to the influence of big money in politics. While flying the bare-bones aircraft from Gettysburg, Penn., to the nation’s capital, the Florida man carried letters addressed to every member of Congress. The tail of the gyrocopter was emblazoned with the Postal Service logo.

Mr. Goldstone said the incident “exposed major flaws” in Washington’s air defense system, and it came after a series of embarrassing security lapses for the Secret Service. Indeed, an August report by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee showed the incident brought to light significant gaps in capitol security and the need for better air security technology and information-sharing.

As the Tampa Bay Times reported, the impetus for Hughes’ act of civil disobedience came from tragedy – he lost his son to suicide a few years earlier, and his “political frustrations and grief merged” into a passion for campaign finance reform:

At the root of Hughes' disdain is the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, in which the court decided campaign contributions were a form of "political speech" and struck down limits on how much corporations and unions could give to political contenders. The decision changed the game. Campaign spending went through the roof. In Hughes' mind, there was a parallel spike in favor-dealing and the government is now practically owned by the rich. Hughes likes to point out that nearly half the retiring members of Congress from 1998 to 2004 got jobs as lobbyists earning some 14 times their congressional salaries.

Goldstone said his client will request probation in the case. The sentencing is expected to take place on April 13.

Hughes has said he lost his job after the incident and that after the criminal case is resolved he intends to work as an activist for campaign finance reform.

This report contains material from Reuters and The Associated Press.

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