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Who Is Doug Hughes? Inside the Mind of the Mailman Who Flew to Washington

The 61-year-old piloted his small open-cockpit gyro-copter from Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., through restricted airspace and a no-fly zone.
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/ Source: NBC News

Doug Hughes wouldn't like this story.

After all, the Florida letter carrier who landed a gyro-copter at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday has long insisted that his message — not he — is what's important: "I'm just delivering the mail."

Hughes, 61, of Ruskin, Florida, piloted his small open-cockpit gyro-copter from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., through restricted airspace and then a no-fly zone, over the National Mall and past the statue memorializing President Ulysses S. Grant before landing with a thud and a bounce on Congress' West Lawn. He's expected to appear in court Thursday.

"Anybody in politics or the news media who want to spend inordinate amounts of time talking about me is avoiding the real discussion — which is about Congress," Hughes wrote on The Democracy Club website, which chronicles his plans to jolt the government into doing something to clean up big money in politics. "Let's keep the discussion focused on reform — not me."

But in light of a series of recent breaches of security in the federal government's core in downtown Washington, it's important to know how a self-described "old mailman from Florida" was able to evade aviation and military watchdogs and slip through the fingers of the Secret Service — which he'd told about his plans in October 2013.

Details for this profile were gathered from federal and Florida court records, Hughes' emailed message to Florida news organizations, his 1,600-word autobiography on the Democracy Club website and information published on another website Hughes has been associated with, The Civilist Blog.

'Principles Over Issues'

Hughes, who grew up in Santa Cruz, California, and served in the Navy as an electrician after high school, is a rural letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, the agency told NBC News. He's married for the second time and has four children.

Hughes moved to Florida after having divorced his first wife and bounced around California, Washington state and North Carolina. It was in Ruskin that he met Michael P. Shanahan, an Army veteran who was also a rural letter carrier for the postal service.

Shanahan introduced Hughes to the concept of Civilism, which he trademarked in 2013, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It's described as "a systematic plan to fix Congress" by building a coalition of moderates "united by faith in principles of democracy." Its motto: "Principles Over Issues."

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"Moderates are all but extinct in this polarized and paralyzed Congress. For the lack of leaders who can negotiate and compromise, nothing in Congress gets done," Shanahan and Hughes write in the introduction to The Civilist Papers, a series of essays urging politicians to set aside their differences and unite around a goal of reforming the campaign finance system.

"Democracy has worked in the past, and can work again if we remove the obstacles — the opportunity to cash in on elective office and the reliance of nearly every congressional campaign on special interest money," it proclaims. In a separate post, Shanahan writes that "voting along party lines might advance your favorite cause (or not) but it will certainly prolong the partisan gridlock and corruption that infect Congress."

The Civilist Papers Inc. was registered as nonprofit group in 2012. But it quickly petered out for a lack of funding, and its last posting is dated Oct. 23, 2012. Neither the IRS nor the Florida secretary of state's office list it as active. An email to Shanahan's last known address wasn't answered.

Hughes also advocates civilist principles at The Democracy Club — a dense, sophisticatedly designed site that decries what he calls the three villains of American politics: "a sold-out Congress," corporations and their lobbyists, and network and cable media, which he says are "fully enlisted in the scheme."

'Democracy has worked in the past, and can work again if we remove the obstacles..."

Bankrupted by the feds?

Along the way, Hughes declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 2011, listing liabilities of $147,485, federal court records show. A lien was placed against his home, with the sole secured creditor listed as USDA Rural Development.

USDA RD, as it is known, is an agency of the federal government — specifically part of the U.S. Agriculture Department. It makes loans to homeowners and small businesses in rural areas.

In other words, Doug Hughes, advocate for getting big money out of government, was apparently forced into bankruptcy by the federal government. The attorney of record for his case didn't reply to a request for comment.

As early as late 2013, Hughes began talking and writing about how he could get his reform message across in a way that couldn't be ignored. He bought a 250-pound gyro-copter — a mini-helicopter that carries a single person for relatively short distances — and began planning how to fly it to Washington so he could deliver letters to all 535 elected members of Congress.

The operation, which he called Freedom Flight, was no secret. The post on The Democracy Club announcing the scheme is dated Sept. 16, 2013. He told The Tampa Bay Times all about his plans — and the Secret Service said Wednesday it even visited him at his home in October 2013. He sent out an email blast to Florida media organizations timed to arrive Wednesday before he reached Washington airspace.

And yet, somehow, he made it.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. military has positioned a classified number of anti-aircraft missile systems around the Washington area. U.S. military officials told NBC News that it's possible those systems might have been able to detect the gyro-copter. At the same time, defense and military officials said, the gyro-copter was so small and slow that it could have been anything — even "a flock of geese," one of them said.

In any event, the officials said, no one in authority would have ordered a missile strike over crowded metropolitan Washington to deal with such a slow, small and unidentifiable target.

A senior military official told NBC News that even jets already in the air would have been ineffective against such a small, low-flying target.

"The low, slow-flier threat has always been a big concern," this official said.

Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News contributed to this report.

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