The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Texas lawmaker dropped a sealed envelope at the airport. It was filled with four bags of cocaine, police say.

Texas state Rep. Poncho Nevárez (D) speaks in Brownsville, Tex., in 2016. (Jason Hoekema/Brownsville Herald/AP)

A stray envelope may end the political career of Texas state Rep. Poncho Nevárez.

As the Democratic lawmaker, 47, was leaving an airport in Austin earlier this year, he dropped an envelope bearing his official letterhead, police said, citing surveillance video.

Inside, investigators now say they found a revelation that would lead to an apology, a decision not to seek reelection — as of Thursday afternoon — and a warrant for his arrest: The sealed envelope, they said in court documents, contained four “small clear baggies” filled with cocaine.

Nevárez is now charged with third-degree felony possession and could face up to 10 years in prison, a stunning downfall for a rising Democratic star in a state turning ever more purple.

His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post early on Friday. But in a statement to the Texas Tribune on Thursday morning, he said: “I do not have anyone to blame but myself. I accept this because it is true and it will help me get better.”

Nevárez, first elected in 2012, holds the distinction of representing the largest State House district in the contiguous United States: a mostly rural swath of south and west Texas that snakes along the border with Mexico, encompassing two time zones and 45,000 square miles — an area approximately the size of Pennsylvania.

A personal injury lawyer by practice, he chairs the Texas House’s Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee and emerged as an outspoken voice in the chamber on immigration and gun control. He was in part credited for bringing “panic buttons” to the offices of his fellow lawmakers, after he and other Democratic legislators were threatened by open-carry activists.

Nevárez made national headlines in 2017, when Republican state Rep. Matt Rinaldi loudly announced he had called immigration authorities on a group protesting a bill on sanctuary cities. Amid the scuffle between lawmakers that followed on the house floor, Nevárez said that Rinaldi had “threatened my life.”

The Democrat also served as vice chairman of a committee formed by lawmakers in response to the state’s two mass shootings earlier this year, in El Paso and Odessa. Some had speculated that Nevárez could serve as a possible candidate for Texas state senate.

But his path to a felony drug charge started on Sept. 6, when a plane chartered by Nevárez’s law firm took off from an airport near Eagle Pass, his hometown on the U.S.-Mexico border. In Austin, the lawmaker touched down wearing a shirt in the burnt orange of his alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, which was set to play a major football game that weekend.

His chief of staff picked him up at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, pulling up in a black SUV to a special part of the airport used by government officials, records say. That’s where police say surveillance video captured him dropping a “white paper object” while climbing into the front passenger seat of the Range Rover.

Less than two hours later, two state transportation officials found an envelope bearing Nevárez’s official Texas House seal. Police say they found four plastic bags inside filled with a “white powdery substance.”

A special investigator from the Texas Department of Public Safety was called onto the scene, where he found that substance was somewhere between one and four grams of cocaine.

“Individuals involved in the possession of narcotics would like to remain discreet and typically conceal the narcotics as best they can,” Otto Cabrera, a special agent for Texas DPS, wrote in an Oct. 25 search warrant affidavit seeking the lawmaker’s DNA. “Therefore, it is reasonable to believe that [Nevárez], using his own letterhead envelope, licked and sealed the envelope that contained the cocaine in order to keep it concealed.”

On Nov. 6, seemingly at random, Nevárez announced that his office would be deactivating its Facebook page, charging that CEO Mark Zuckerberg “has no interest in the truth” when it came to targeted messaging on the social media platform.

Two days later, he delivered a much bigger to surprise to the Texas political world when he announced he would not be seeking reelection.

“We talk about how important family and health is in all this, and as such my family needs me and I need them,” Nevárez said in a statement to KXAN. “I must heal up for the rest of what may come in my life. So, it is time to come home.”

Some observers were befuddled. But this week, a likelier explanation emerged when an affidavit related to the lawmaker’s case was posted online late Wednesday night by Direct Action Texas, a conservative activist group, and later confirmed by multiple Texas media outlets.

Following the publication of the affidavit, the lawmaker confirmed that “the news is true” — and was indeed why he had decided to bow out of his seat come 2020 and seek treatment, just as he appeared to be gaining more political clout.

In a statement to the Dallas Morning News, the Texas Democratic Party wished the lawmaker success with his recovery.

“Addiction is a serious issue, and [it is] important for people to access the help they need moving forward,” the statement read. “Rep. Nevárez is taking responsibility and seeking the help he needs.”

Hours later, however, a warrant was signed for the lawmaker’s arrest. He told the El Paso Times in a text message: “I am taking care of that soon. It’s part of the process.”

He won’t be the first. Nevárez’s saga marks the latest entry in a long history of lawmakers caught buying or using cocaine, at local, state and federal levels.

In 2013, former Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) pleaded guilty to a ­misdemeanor drug charge just 10 months after arriving in Congress. That same year, Rob Ford, the former mayor of Toronto, was stripped of his powers after admitting to smoking crack “while in a drunken stupor.” (That didn’t keep him from a successful campaign for Toronto City Council.)

And perhaps most famously, former D.C. mayor Marion Barry served six months in a federal prison after an undercover sting operation caught him smoking crack cocaine at a hotel in the District in 1990.

Correction: An earlier version of this report said that Nevárez’s district is the largest in the United States. It is the largest in the contiguous United States.