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Joe Barton warned woman not to release explicit photos that are now under police investigation

Updated at 9:45 p.m. with details from a Washington Post interview with a woman who said she received the sexually explicit images from Rep. Joe Barton. 

WASHINGTON — Ennis Rep. Joe Barton said U.S. Capitol Police have launched an investigation into how a sexually explicit photo of him was released online this week.

Meanwhile, an unnamed woman has come forward, telling The Washington Post that Barton sent her lewd messages, videos and images from Barton during a relationship that spanned multiple years, beginning in 2011. 

The woman, who said she subsequently discovered Barton was involved with other women, and that she began corresponding with them, provided a recording to The Post in which the Republican threatened to report her to the Capitol Police if she released the materials "in a way that would negatively affect" his career. 

She told the newspaper that she did not publish the explicit image, though it's unclear whether she willingly provided it to someone else. 

Barton confirmed late Wednesday that he warned the woman he might seek help from police to ensure that she didn't expose private photos to retaliate for his ending their relationship, and he believes he's the victim of a crime from this week's exposure of the lewd material.

In a statement released earlier on Wednesday to The Dallas Morning News, Barton said the image of him in a compromising pose — which first surfaced on social media earlier this week — was taken in recent years while separated from his former wife.

"While separated from my second wife, prior to the divorce, I had sexual relationships with other mature adult women," Barton, who is twice-divorced, said in the statement. "Each was consensual. Those relationships have ended. I am sorry I did not use better judgment during those days. I am sorry that I let my constituents down."

His spokeswoman told The News that he has no plans to step down. Legal questions quickly emerged over whether Barton is the victim of a crime, prompting an investigation.

The news comes less than three weeks after Barton, the longest-serving member of the Texas House delegation, announced that he's launching his 18th congressional campaign -- a decision now in turmoil. 

The episode began earlier this week when a person on Twitter posted an image of what appears to be a nude or partially nude man, now known to be Barton, in a sexually suggestive posture. Parts of his anatomy were blurred out with blue scribbling. 

The Twitter user who initially posted the photo -- which has since been deleted -- has not responded to multiple requests for comment from The News. It's unclear how the person obtained the image, or why it was brought forward now. 

Barton detractors retweeted the photo and, within a day, political insiders were buzzing. State lawmakers were already talking about seeking his seat, and pundits placed Barton on a watch list Tuesday night as a potential retirement in 2018.

Barton, 68, hinted that he's reconsidering his political future when he told the The Texas Tribune that he's "talking to a number of people, all of whom I have faith in and am deciding how to respond, quite frankly." 

Victim of a crime?

The photo comes at a particularly delicate time, as Congress and the nation grapple with the issue of sexual harassment, with a number of lawmakers accused of unwanted sexual contact in recent weeks.

But Barton said the image was taken in a consensual relationship -- a point quickly raised by people across the political spectrum on social media Wednesday.

What's more, he may be a victim of a crime under Texas laws intended to protect against the release of intimate materials.

In 2015, Texas legislators passed a "revenge porn law" criminalizing the act of intentionally disclosing pictures or videos "depicting another person with the person's intimate parts exposed or engaged in sexual conduct" without their consent.

Anyone found in violation of the law could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in county jail and up to a $4,000 fine.

Shannon Edmonds, a staff attorney with the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said he doesn't know enough about the Barton case to know if the law applies here. But he noted the law was "designed to address situations exactly like this, where a person from a past relationship who has consensually taken images decides to air those naughty pictures in an effort to harm the person they're no longer in a relationship with."

The definition of harm is very broad, Edmonds added, meaning "anything reasonably regarded as loss, disadvantage or injury."

Though the woman interviewed by The Post, who is unmarried, also provided to the newspaper texts and social media messages she exchanged with Barton, as well as a recording of Barton in an intimate moment. As reported by The Post, InfoWars, a conspiracy theory website, briefly published the video on Wednesday night. 

She told the newspaper that the relationship began when Barton contacted her in 2011, after she commented on his Facebook page.

The woman said Barton was never "abusive or coercive," but said she felt he was "dishonest and misleading" about his relationships. 

In a statement to The News late Wednesday, Barton said the transcript the woman gave The Post may be evidence of a crime. 

"This woman admitted that we had a consensual relationship. When I ended that relationship, she threatened to publicly share my private photographs and intimate correspondence in retaliation. As the transcript reflects, I offered to take the matter to the Capitol Hill Police to open an investigation. Today, the Capitol Police reached out to me and offered to launch an investigation and I have accepted. Because of the pending investigation, we will have no further comment."

2018 ramifications

Barton, a House Freedom Caucus member who represents Congressional District 6, has not said whether he intends to drop out of the 2018 race. 

He faces a handful of Democratic competitors in a red district stretching from Arlington through southern Tarrant County and all of Ellis and Navarro counties. He was expected to have another easy victory.  Last year, he easily defeated Democrat Ruby Faye Woolridge by 19 percentage points, 58 percent to 39 percent. 

Before The Post published its story, a number of people weighed in.

Pilot Point Rep. Michael Burgess, a Republican, told The News that the news is "disturbing."

"Moving forward, I expect for Mr. Barton to make the correct decision for his constituents and his family. I am saddened for everyone involved," he said. 

Burgess, notably, didn't say what the correct decision is.

One of Barton's Democratic challengers was more charitable, calling the issue a "distraction" from more pressing matters.

Jana Lynne Sanchez, a former journalist and now a small business owner, said that while “I don’t ever want to see a picture like that again in my life,” the Republican has apologized for “poor judgment.”

“I’m not going to get in the gutter and fight over personal behavior,” she continued, adding: “This is a distraction and we need to be talking about health care, education and jobs.”

House Speaker Paul Ryan's press secretary said Ryan spoke with Barton about the matter but would not disclose what was discussed.

Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, who has long tracked Barton's career, said prior to The Post story that barring new and damning information, the episode is "more embarrassing than anything else."

But it does raise questions about the motivation behind releasing the images, he said, whether the work of a potential primary opponent, political enemy or a former lover. 

The lawmaker has already had a trying year. Barton, the longtime manager of the GOP congressional baseball team, was among those on the field when a gunman opened fire last June. 

Unusual source 

The person who appears to have generated the photo removed images and tweets related to Barton by Wednesday night. 

But the person has tweeted a stream of unusual statements. 

The person — who often retweets pro-President Donald Trump messages — has claimed "corrupt police" took his or her medicine, that someone attempted to kill him or her with a car, and appears to have a fascination with actor Corey Feldman. 

In the initial tweet that sparked the brouhaha, the Twitter user linked the image of Barton with a separate image of a clothed woman, suggesting the two were involved, with a cryptic message: "I don't like being harassed by these 2." 

The woman implicated in the photo, whom The News is not identifying, has not responded to requests for comment. By Wednesday night, the images had been deleted.

-- Dallas political writer Gromer Jeffers, breaking news producer Tom Steele and Austin correspondent Lauren McGaughy contributed to this report.