Portillo pleads guilty in phone-spoofing scandal

BREWSTER COUNTY — Devon Portillo, a former sheriff’s candidate for Brewster County, has pleaded guilty to a charge of making a false statement after authorities said he spoofed Sheriff Ronny Dodson’s phone number to send out racist messages, then lied to the FBI about it.

The actual plea agreement, from last Tuesday, was sealed by a judge for reasons that are not entirely clear. But the news was confirmed by another filing that week, in which Portillo waived his right to a trial and said he understood the charges against him.

In a news release announcing the plea on Friday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas also confirmed Portillo’s guilty plea and offered more context. During last year’s sheriff election, according to the release, FBI investigators interviewed Portillo “about a racist social media text falsely attributed to his opponent,” incumbent candidate Dodson.

“Portillo denied creating the racist text message,” the news release states, instead blaming it on another person. But later, “Portillo admitted that he had indeed authored the fake text message.”

Portillo, who is currently out on bond, faces up to five years in prison over the charge. He will face a sentencing hearing in June at a federal courthouse in Alpine.

The charges, which The Big Bend Sentinel first reported on last month, stem from an incident that occurred last summer as Portillo, a Republican, attempted to unseat Dodson, the longtime Democratic incumbent, for Brewster County sheriff.

Around June, Portillo faced a petition calling for his removal from the race after racist tweets resurfaced. Portillo blamed “sabotage” for the controversy and suggested his account had been hacked. When The Big Bend Sentinel found evidence that cast doubt on those claims, Portillo declined to comment further.

“We’re not commenting on anything else,” he said.

Just days later, Sheriff Dodson’s phone number was “spoofed” to send out racist messages. Phone spoofing occurs when someone uses technology to misrepresent the sender of a call or text message.

Spoofing is often but not always a crime — and if the controversy had stopped there, it’s not entirely clear whether Portillo would have faced criminal charges. But he then also lied to federal authorities who were looking into the matter, landing him in legal troubles last month.

Meanwhile, Portillo’s efforts to deflect controversy on Dodson never quite paid off. In August, with his campaign still floundering from the initial Twitter controversy, Portillo dropped out.

Will Drawe, a write-in candidate, replaced Portillo in the race. By entering the race late, he did not have his name on the ballot and ultimately lost in a landslide to Dodson, earning just 645 votes to Dodson’s 3,888.

Portillo’s lawyer, Steve Spurgin, declined to comment on the plea agreement. In a phone interview on Tuesday, Dodson said the fake messages had caused stress for him and his family. He had to change both his personal number and the business number for his gun store in Alpine, he said.

“It was terrible,” Dodson said of the incident. “It’s very hard to defend yourself when people start putting [rumors] on Facebook” claiming he was a racist. He was particularly concerned that the messages had harmed his reputation and said it had likely caused some voters not to support him in his 2020 re-election bid. “That’s what hurts.”

Ultimately, Dodson saw the incident as a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology and social media. He urged Brewster County residents not to believe everything they see online.

Social media “is the fastest way to get things out — but it’s also the fastest way to hurt somebody’s reputation,” he added. “Technology’s got its demons.”