Paul Hodgkins at the podium with his attorney Patrick Leduc.
CNN  — 

The first January 6 rioter to be sentenced for a felony reported to prison on Monday to serve his eight-month sentence, while mounting a longshot legal bid to undo his guilty plea.

Paul Hodgkins of Florida stormed the US Capitol during the pro-Trump insurrection and was one of the few dozen rioters who breached the Senate floor shortly after it was evacuated. He pleaded guilty to obstructing the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory and was sentenced to eight months in prison.

But as his surrender date drew closer, Hodgkins fired his veteran attorney, hired a new one who only passed the bar last year and launched an effort to unwind his guilty plea and reduce his prison term – even though the judge’s eight-month sentence was far less than the Justice Department’s 1.5-year recommendation.

The about-face from Hodgkins comes as other rioters grapple with accepting responsibility and amid increasing efforts by Republicans to rewrite the history of January 6. Protesters returned to Capitol grounds on Saturday in support of the few dozen rioters who are in jail before trial. And prominent right-wing figures are still flooding the zone with disinformation about the insurrection.

Hodgkins, 38, turned himself in on Monday and is now in prison, his attorney said. The lawyer refused to say where Hodgkins is serving his sentence, citing fears for his safety. He is serving his sentence at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, according to the Bureau of Prisons.

“The circling blood-thirsty sharks can feast,” Hodgkins’ defense attorney Carolyn Stewart told CNN in an email Monday. “The haters can rejoice, while the prayers of all others are welcome.”

11th-hour moves

Hodgkins’ then-attorney Col. Patrick Leduc delivered a rambling but passionate 30-minute speech at the July 19 sentencing, touching on everything from Abraham Lincoln to “cancel culture.”

The unconventional approach may have paid off. Even though the federal guidelines called for roughly one to two years behind bars, District Judge Randolph Moss settled at eight months, in part because Hodgkins “accepted responsibility and pled guilty exceptionally early,” he said.

One day later, Leduc shipped off to the Middle East as part of his service in the Army Reserves. He is currently in Qatar, helping resettle refugees from Afghanistan. The case seemed to be over. As part of the plea deal with the Justice Department, Hodgkins gave up most of his appeal rights. But behind the scenes, a bitter dispute was brewing.

Last month, with Hodgkins’ surrender date quickly approaching, he switched up his lawyers. He abruptly fired Leduc – who has nearly 30 years of experience in federal litigation and as a JAG officer – and retained Stewart, a novice who only passed the Florida bar exam last November.

Stewart soon told the judge that she would challenge Hodgkins’ sentence by claiming Leduc was an ineffective lawyer. This was one of the few appeal rights that Hodgkins retained under his pela deal. Over the objections of the Justice Department, the judge gave Stewart more time to file an appeal, but he rejected her last-minute attempt to delay Hodgkins’ surrender date until January

At a hastily arranged court hearing on last Wednesday, Stewart claimed that Leduc perpetuated a “forgery upon the court” by faking Hodgkins’ signature on some of the plea documents. Calling the situation “mind-boggling,” Stewart claimed that Hodgkins told her “that’s not my signature.”

In previous court filings, Stewart claimed that Leduc bullied and manipulated Hodgkins to agree to the plea, saying, “one might wonder whose team Mr. Hodgkins’ former attorney was on.” Stewart’s claims are unproven.

Leduc vehemently denied any wrongdoing in an interview with CNN from Qatar, where he is currently deployed, and said Hodgkins personally signed the plea documents in his presence, at his law office in Tampa.

“Paul signed the plea, period,” Leduc said. “I wouldn’t have done anything unethical. No one has ever accused me of doing anything unethical. I’ve represented thousands of defendants. I’ve never done anything without their consent, without their knowledge, or without their permission.”

Federal prosecutors have pointed out that Hodgkins attested under oath during his June plea hearing that he was “satisfied” with Leduc’s services, that he fully discussed the plea agreement beforehand, that he read and understood the deal, and that he was in fact guilty of the offense.

“You may be putting him in some jeopardy with this allegation,” Moss told Stewart at last week’s court hearing. “I don’t know if there’s any merit to (the forgery allegation) or not. but I do know that Mr. Hodgkins was under oath, and I asked him if this was his signature, and he said it was.”

Inner workings of the probe

In court filings claiming that Hodgkins received ineffective counsel, Stewart publicly disclosed several emails between Leduc and the prosecutors handling the case. She also revealed emails between Leduc and Hodgkins, which might have been protected by attorney-client privilege.

The emails shed new light on the Justice Department’s philosophy toward the various Capitol riot cases. Not all are created equal – some rioters wandered around the building, while others ransacked senators’ offices and attacked police officers. Some rioters exited within minutes, while others like Hodgkins penetrated deep into the complex, making it onto the Senate floor.

“I feel bad for you because you have no idea how lucky you have been,” Leduc told Hodgkins in an August 21 email, per court filings. “Every other person on the floor of the Senate with you is looking at 46 months on the low end. You got 8 months when the US wanted you to get 18.”

Hodgkins was the first felony rioter to learn his punishment – a pivotal moment that many legal experts believed could set a benchmark for hundreds of other rioters. Because of this sensitivity, Attorney General Merrick Garland personally approved Hodgkins’ plea deal and the sentencing guidelines range, Leduc told Stewart in an August 25 email, according to public court filings.

This story has been updated with Hodgkins’ prison location.