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Will Doug Hughes Do Hard Time for Embarrassing Congress?

Hughes and his attorney are negotiating a plea deal with government prosecutors. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Back in Washington for a Monday morning status hearing at the federal courthouse, Florida mailman Douglas Hughes showed no fear about going to trial for his April 15 gyrocopter flight to the West Front.  

"I don’t think I should be doing hard jail time for a flight that brought attention to corruption in Congress," the 61-year-old said, speaking to reporters on a sidewalk blocks from the Capitol. Federal prosecutors offered Hughes a plea deal prior to his May 20 indictment on six charges, including two felonies and four misdemeanors, but he rejected it, seeking to avoid significant time behind bars. "There’s people in Congress who made it perfectly clear that had they been at the trigger, I would have been shot down from my flight,” he continued.  "No jail time is justified in an act that’s only intended to bring the attention of the media and the voter to the corruption of our government."  

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and others suggested Hughes should have been shot out of the sky, and immediately turned their attention to security loopholes his lightweight aircraft allegedly exposed. During an April 29 hearing , Capitol Police Chief Kim C. Dine was asked more than seven times whether officers had guns trained on Hughes’ gyrocopter.  

But those seeking to curb the influence of big money in politics have tried to steer the conversation toward the two-page letter Hughes tried to transport. It decried the revolving door between Congress and K Street, the influence of rich donors and the cozy relationship between corporate interests and members. When author Joe Lane traveled from Connecticut to make a June 10 delivery of 535 copies of the letter, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin , D-Ill., greeted his arrival with a campaign finance bill, which now has 17 co-sponsors.  

“I thought it was great that he capitalized on Joe Lane’s move, OK, to put his move on top of it," Hughes said of Durbin's proposal to create a voluntary three-stage system of public financing for Senate candidates. "We’re going to need to get a lot of congressmen on board with this and we’re going to have to hold the figurative gun to their heads — that either they will embrace the issue, the cause, of setting up a wall of separation between money and government or they are going to go down in the next election."  

"They are not going to do it willingly," Hughes continued. "Very nearly half the Congress, senators and House members, after they retire they go six blocks up to K Street and they get jobs where they are making about $2 million per year as lobbyists. What do these guys know that's worth $2 million a year?"  

Since his April 15 arrest, Hughes has been confined to the Florida county where he lives, though activists from across the country have reached out to share op-eds about corruption in federal government. Most don't mention his name, he said, but the views might not have made it to publication without the gyrocopter stunt.  

"The problem is that it was spectacular. The prosecutor has laid charges on me because it was significant," Hughes said, expressing confidence he would be found innocent if the case goes to trial. “They are looking for an excuse to put me away for a serious amount of time, but what’s going to happen in the defense is I’m not going to be able to talk about the reasons behind a spectacular act.”  

Prosecutor Tejpal Singh Chawla, who is representing the U.S. attorney's office, did not disclose details of the plea deal that Hughes rejected. "Those conversations are continuing," Chawla told the judge.  

District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly agreed to modify the conditions of the Florida man's release so Hughes can transport his teenage daughter to school and visit his son in Orlando.