WASHINGTON: The heightened scrutiny of sexual impropriety on Capitol Hill has swept up a senior House Republican who apologised on Wednesday for a sexually explicit photo that wound up on the internet and raised the possibility that he had been the victim of a crime.
Joe Barton of Texas, who was once the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is now its vice-chairman, said he was reconsidering his political future after the photograph appeared on an anonymous Twitter account.
Barton, who has hired a crisis communications firm, made clear he was ready for a fight. In a statement on Wednesday night, he said that he had suffered “a potential crime.” A Texas law, the so-called revenge pornography law, makes it a misdemeanour to intentionally publicise images or videos of someone’s genitals or sexual activity without consent.
Hours after his initial apology, The Washington Post reported that Barton, 68, had threatened in 2015 to report to the Capitol Police a woman with whom he had shared explicit photographs, videos and messages if she exposed him.
The woman, who spoke anonymously, shared with The Post a recorded phone conversation in which the congressman confronted her about communications she had had with other women connected to Barton, including sexually explicit material he had shared with her.
Joe Barton is the longest-serving member of the Texas congressional delegation and was the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman when President George W. Bush was in the White House.
Barton did not dispute the woman’s account. But in his statement, he said that she “threatened to publicly share my private photographs and intimate correspondence in retaliation” when he ended their relationship.
“Today, the Capitol Police reached out to me and offered to launch an investigation and I have accepted,” he said. “Because of the pending investigation, we will have no further comment.”
A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In his earlier statement, Barton had said that while separated from his wife, he had “sexual relationships with other mature adult women”.
“Each was consensual. Those relationships have ended,” he said. “I am sorry I did not use better judgement during those days. I am sorry that I let my constituents down.”
The photo of a naked Barton, with his genitals obscured before it was posted, set off waves of speculation in Texas and Washington, where sexual harassment charges are roiling Capitol Hill. The tweets, which appeared on Monday, included an image of a sexually explicit text message, ostensibly sent by Barton, along with a cryptic reference to harassment.
In addition to the recorded phone conversation, The Post reported that the woman had shared messages she had exchanged with the congressman and a cell phone video of the congressman masturbating. The Post, which reviewed the video, said the photograph posted on Tuesday appeared to be a still shot from the video.
It was not clear why the photo was posted. The woman who spoke with The Post said she had not put the image on Twitter herself. Lawmakers called and texted one another on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning trying to discern whether the photo was authentic but received no guidance from the party’s leadership or Barton.
Direct messages sent to the Twitter account that posted the image have not been returned.
AshLee Strong, a spokeswoman for Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, said on Wednesday afternoon that Ryan had spoken to Barton on the matter but would “keep those conversations between the two of them”.
Barton is the longest-serving member of the Texas congressional delegation and was the Energy and Commerce Committee chairman when President George W. Bush was in the White House.
He had lowered his sights more recently, telling associates that he hoped to claim the investigatory subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce panel. That subcommittee chairmanship is vacant because its most recent chairman, Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, resigned last month after it was revealed that he had encouraged his mistress to seek an abortion.
Unlike other veteran lawmakers who have retired after their time atop influential committees has come to an end, Barton had shown no interest in leaving Congress.
“I’m the odd duck who didn’t quit,” he joked to The Dallas Morning News in an interview this month.
His personal life has been more turbulent than his political career. He divorced his first wife in 1993 and his second wife two years ago.
Barton has young children from his second marriage, and one of them, his 10-year-old son, was at the congressional baseball practice this year when a man sprayed the field with bullets, gravely injuring Rep. Steve Scalise. Barton is the longtime coach of the Republican baseball team.
Democrats were not planning to aggressively contest Barton’s conservative-leaning seat: His best-funded challenger, Jana Lynne Sanchez, had only $16,440 on hand as of the start of October.