NEW YORK – A CBS newsman who prosecutors said was desperate and deep in debt was charged Friday with trying to blackmail David Letterman for $2 million in a plot that forced the late night comic to acknowledge having sex with some of the women who have worked for him.
The bizarre case created a messy legal and professional problem for one of CBS’ most valuable personalities. Commentators and bloggers quickly accused Letterman of hypocrisy because he has made a career of mocking politicians mercilessly, often for their sexual transgressions.
It remains to be seen whether Letterman will suffer long-term damage just as his career appears to be peaking. Letterman has taken over as the king of late-night in the ratings this summer, and last week he beat NBC’s Conan O’Brien for the first time among young viewers.
Robert J. “Joe” Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show “48 Hours Mystery,” pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan court as he was arraigned on one count of attempted first-degree grand larceny, punishable by five to 15 years in prison. He was released after posting $200,000 bail.
Halderman’s connection to Letterman was not immediately clear, but public records show that until August, he lived in Norwalk, Conn., with Stephanie Birkitt, a 34-year-old woman who works on the “Late Show” staff and used to work at “48 Hours.”
Birkitt was an assistant to Letterman on the “Late Show” and frequently appeared on camera with the host in comedy bits. Last month, Birkitt moved to Manhattan’s upper West Side.
It was unclear how many women were involved in relationships with Letterman, 62, who married longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko in March. The couple began dating in 1986 and have a son, Harry, born in November 2003.
All the affairs took place before Letterman’s marriage, said Tom Keaney, spokesman for Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants. Keaney also said Letterman “is not in violation” of the company’s harassment policy “and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.”
CBS would not address questions about whether Letterman faced any disciplinary actions for relationships with subordinates.
Assistant District Attorney Judy Salwen told the judge Halderman was in debt, but did not elaborate.
“The evidence is compelling,” she said. “It shows the defendant is desperate, and he is capable of doing anything.”
The prosecutor said Halderman gave the talk show host a package of materials that “contained clear, explicit and actual threats that indicate this defendant … (wanted to) destroy the reputation of Mr. Letterman and to submit him and his family to humiliation and ridicule.”
Halderman, hands cuffed behind his back, stared at the floor during most of Friday’s court hearing and said only “not guilty.”
His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said Halderman worked at CBS for 27 years and had no prior criminal record. He described him as an involved father who coached soccer, baseball and football and has two children, ages 11 and 18.
“This story is far more complicated than what you heard this afternoon,” Shargel said outside court, but he would not elaborate.
Halderman allegedly left an envelope in Letterman’s car early Sept. 9. According to authorities, he wrote that he needed “to make a large chunk of money” and said that Letterman’s world would “collapse around him” if damaging information about him were made public.
Letterman acknowledged that the letter contained proof that the late-night host had sexual relationships with members of his staff.