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Gyrocopter Pilot Looks to Crowdfund Defense Counsel

Hughes wants to crowdsource his legal defense, but a federal judge isn't sure whether the law will allow it. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Florida mailman Douglas Hughes is looking to crowdfund a First Amendment legal defense against the six felony and misdemeanor charges he faces from his April 15 gyrocopter landing on the West Front. In federal court Wednesday, free-speech attorney Mark Goldstone described plans for an online fundraising effort that would capitalize on the "outpouring of support" from "across the country" to collect the money Hughes would need to retain Goldstone as a co-counsel. Sporting a navy silk tie emblazoned with the the Constitution, Goldstone called the flight "aerial civil disobedience."  

Hughes, 61, who filed for food stamps last month after being fired from the Postal Service, is currently represented by Assistant Federal Public Defender Tony Miles. With a client list that includes protesters arrested for demonstrating at the Capitol, Supreme Court and the White House, Goldstone would be brought on board to supplement Miles' services.  

By law, any money raised or collected by a person provided with a public defender typically goes toward the federal account that supports those services. But it was unclear during the court proceedings if any of the online funding would go back to the government, or how much Goldstone expected to make from taking on the case.  

"I think I need a more concrete proposal," said U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly. She asked for a more specific financial plan, laying out who controls the funds and any "hard cap" on Goldstone's earnings, to be ready when the case is back in court on Aug. 27.  

"You should proceed with the case," Kollar-Kotelly emphasized. "This should not be put in limbo."  

Prosecutors expressed no position on who should represent Hughes, stating “we defer to the Court on that issue,” in court documents.  

Establishing an online campaign to raise money for legal services is not without precedent. In 2012, Florida man George Zimmerman reportedly raised nearly $204,000 through a fundraising site to help with legal costs, including bond, after he was charged with second-degree murder for fatally shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.  

Outside court, Hughes told CQ Roll Call his case was "definitely going to trial," after previous talk of a plea deal. "The American Postal Workers Union came out with a resolution calling for the reversal of Citizens United in their last convention, so I am hoping to recruit support nationwide for a large number of demonstrations to run concurrently with the trial — potentially including mailmen and pilots," Hughes said.  

In addition to support from nonprofit groups that want to get money out of politics, Hughes, who served in the Navy, thinks he might be able to recruit veterans and senior citizens to his campaign. Hughes wants to use the trial to raise local awareness in districts around the nation of former members of Congress who now earn big paychecks from lobbying the government.  

"To any real person in the real world, this smells like bribery," he said.  

Meanwhile, members of Congress remain focused on the airspace security gap Hughes' flight exposed.  

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and ranking member Thomas R. Carper, D-Del., released a bipartisan staff report examining the incident, as Hughes appeared in a courtroom blocks from the Capitol.  

The findings fault the Secret Service and Capitol Police for not conducting a more thorough investigation into Hughes when he came on the radar in 2013. Capitol Police relied too heavily on incomplete information collected by the Secret Service, according to the committee.  

Both security agencies, and the U.S. Park Police, need to improve their communication and information sharing, the report suggests. Although the gyrocopter was nearly undetectable — looking similar to a bird or a kite  on Federal Aviation Administration radar — the committee believes law enforcement agencies could better use intelligence next time to secure the Capitol from similar plans.

“Despite technological limitations, law enforcement officials had the opportunity to conduct further analysis of Mr. Hughes and his intentions two years before the gyrocopter incident occurred,” Johnson stated.

In the final portion of its 22-page report, the committee states Congress should consider upping the penalties for intentionally breaching Washington's restricted airspace. "While this may not prevent all individuals from violating the restricted airspace, increased penalties will likely act as a strong deterrent," the report concludes.  

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