Former sheriff’s candidate charged for allegedly lying to FBI

Devon Portillo is facing up to five years in prison after the FBI says he lied to them

BREWSTER COUNTY — A former sheriff’s candidate in Brewster County is facing federal charges after the FBI last year said the phone number of Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson was “spoofed” to send offensive messages. Phone spoofing occurs when someone uses technology to make it appear as though a text or call is coming from a different sender.

The candidate in question — Devon Portillo, a Republican — was charged last month with making a false statement or representation after he allegedly lied to FBI agents who were investigating the spoofing of Dodson’s phone. When agents asked Portillo whether he had created the spoofed text, he said no, according to court documents.

While spoofing is sometimes a crime in the United States, Portillo has not apparently been charged for the actual spoofing. Instead, he faces a charge for lying to the FBI, which was looking into the matter.

The FBI says Portillo allegedly “knew that he had created the fake text message” and therefore made a willfully false statement to federal authorities, according to court filings. If convicted, Portillo faces up to five years in prison.

Portillo made an initial court appearance last Friday at a federal courthouse in Alpine. A follow-up hearing is tentatively scheduled for March, and by press time, he has not yet entered a plea.

At his hearing last week, Portillo agreed to a $10,000 surety bond — meaning that while Portillo did not have to pay $10,000 to secure his release, he will be on the hook for those funds if he violates his bond. Portillo agreed to a number of conditions as part of that agreement, including abstaining from all alcohol and agreeing not to travel to Mexico. He was also ordered to promptly report any contact with law enforcement and to remove all firearms from his apartment in San Angelo.

Portillo did not respond to a request for comment on the charge. His lawyer, Steve Spurgin, declined to comment.

Sheriff Ronny Dodson declined to comment in detail on the incident, citing the fact that the case was still ongoing. But Dodson did say he was pleased to be vindicated in this incident and said he wanted the public to know he did not send out any offensive or racist text messages.

“I’m glad this part of it is over,” Dodson said in a phone interview on Monday. “I didn’t want people to think I had done what was done.”

Portillo’s political troubles — and later, his legal ones — started last summer. Around June, an online petition started circulating after tweets from 2013 on Portillo’s Twitter account resurfaced. The tweets in question used the n-word, along with derogatory racial stereotypes.

The petition, which ultimately garnered more than 5,000 signatures, said that “Alpine does not condone racism or discrimination.” It asked that Portillo be removed from the sheriff’s ballot.

In an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel at the time, Portillo blamed “sabotage” for the tweets and said his account had been hacked or that the offensive tweets had been otherwise doctored. At that point, the tweets were no longer on Portillo’s Twitter profile.

The Big Bend Sentinel found evidence that the tweets were posted in 2013 and therefore could not be part of a recent political hit. When presented with this evidence, Portillo declined to comment.

“We’re not commenting on anything else,” Portillo said in a follow-up interview last year. However, he did acknowledge that he had authored another controversial social media post, in which he wrote that American soldiers fought in international conflicts “so that we can live freely” and “not so man can lay with man.”

Just days later, the FBI confirmed it was investigating after Sheriff Ronny Dodson’s number was spoofed to also send out racist text messages. While The Big Bend Sentinel does not know details about the content of those messages, a spokesperson for the FBI said they were “racially insensitive and hateful in nature” and were sent to “several members of the community.” The agency also said it could verify that “none of the offensive messages originated with any of Sheriff Dodson’s devices.”

In a social media post at the time, the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office said that Sheriff Dodson had filed a criminal complaint for identity theft and threatening a police officer. Dodson did not “condone any of the language” in the messages, the post said.

In a phone interview at the time, Dodson said he had to temporarily stop using his phone after he started receiving “call after call after call” complaining and threatening him for the racist messages. He called the situation “horrible” and warned that phone spoofing technology was “dangerous.”

Portillo, whose candidacy never quite recovered from the controversy, ultimately dropped out in August. A write-in candidate, Alpine police officer Will Drawe, replaced him on the ballot. Unfortunately for Portillo, there’s no option to drop out when it comes to the new federal indictment against him.