The Florida postal worker who landed his gyrocopter on Capitol Hill last month pled not guilty on Thursday to two felony counts and four misdemeanors. Although the defiant pilot intended to spread public awareness regarding campaign finance reform and dark money influencing politics, lawmakers in Washington have focused instead on the security lapses that allowed him to fly over restricted airspace. Refusing to be ignored, 61-year-old Doug Hughes now faces a maximum sentence of nine and a half years in prison for his nonviolent protest against rampant political greed.
On April 15, Doug Hughes flew from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and landed on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol. Instead of carrying weapons, his gyrocopter was equipped with 535 letters that he intended to deliver to the members of Congress. In his letters and subsequent opinion pieces, Hughes has called for a constitutional amendment to nullify Citizens United v. FEC and reforms to systemic political corruption.
“The reason I did it,” Hughes explained during an NPR interview, “although I brought 535 letters to Congress, the reason was to get a message to the American people — not that there’s a problem with Congress but that there are solutions to the problem. Ninety-one percent of Americans know that Congress isn’t working for them. That they’re responding to special interests and lobbyists.”
“Many people don’t know that almost half the Congress, when they retire goes to work as lobbyists, oftentimes making 14 times what they made while they were in Congress as special advisers, and lobbyists, and none of them is worth $2 million a year. They’re getting paid off for voting the way the lobbyist firm that they got hired to wanted them to vote while they were in office. Anybody who looks at this can see that it’s bribery made legal by a delayed payment.”
Hughes was immediately arrested upon landing. Prosecutors have accused Hughes of flying through three no-fly zones even though he told the Secret Service that he planned to demonstrate a nonviolent protest using his gyrocopter back in 2013. Before his flight Hughes sent emails to several media organizations, including the Tampa Bay Times who alerted the Washington police of Hughes’ unauthorized flight at least 20 minutes before he landed.
A federal grand jury indicted Hughes on six charges including two felonies and four misdemeanors. On Thursday, he pled not guilty to felony counts of operating an aircraft without a license and violating FAA requirements by failing to register his gyrocopter. Hughes also pled not guilty to three misdemeanor counts of violating national defense airspace and one count of falsely labeling his vehicle as a postal carrier. According to the indictment, Hughes attached a U.S. Postal Service logo to his gyrocopter.
The government has confiscated Hughes’ gyrocopter, and the Postal Service placed him on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation. Released on his own recognizance, Hughes remains under house arrest wearing an electronic ankle bracelet. If convicted, Hughes faces a maximum sentence of nine and a half years in prison for attempting to practice free speech in a corrupt city where only money talks.
“It’s easy to be cynical, but it’s time to stop,” Hughes wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. “Now is the time to accept the responsibility of citizenship. We the people prevailed over monarchs and robber barons, bled in battles at home and abroad and have kept expanding the rights assured to those history left behind. Each generation recognizes in some way that democracy is not a destination arrived at two centuries ago, but a choice we make by engaging, paying attention, making our voices heard and voting.”