Dr. Bob Arnot Defends Joe Halderman in Letterman Blackmail Case

The Norwalk, Conn., house Joe Halderman and Stephanie Birkitt shared.
The Norwalk, Conn., house Joe Halderman and Stephanie Birkitt shared. (By George Ruhe -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 2009

CBS News producer Robert "Joe" Halderman went after David Letterman after seeing the comedian and Halderman's girlfriend in "a very passionate embrace" a few weeks ago, a close friend of Halderman says.

The account by Dr. Bob Arnot, a journalist who worked with Halderman for 15 years, suggests that the producer charged in an extortion plot against Letterman was motivated at least in part by anger. And with Halderman under indictment, his emerging version may represent an attempt to defuse the blackmail charges by maintaining that he was motivated by emotion and not money.

No matter the motive, the tangled case centers on a classic love triangle: Stephanie Birkitt, Letterman's longtime assistant, had previously dated the talk-show host before moving in with Halderman.

When Halderman saw the two embrace at the end of a private road near his Norwalk, Conn., home, "he felt betrayed," Arnot said in an interview Friday. "He felt he was the backup. He felt lied to. He felt very angry, more at Letterman than at his girlfriend. . . . Joe was furious, beside himself, that this was being thrown in his face."

Arnot has spoken extensively to Halderman and Halderman's lawyer since the arrest last week, which prompted Letterman to acknowledge to viewers that he had sex with women on his "Late Show" staff. A spokesman for Worldwide Pants, Letterman's production company, said only that "we stand behind our recent statements on this matter."

Birkitt, 34, has not addressed the matter publicly. She is on paid leave from "The Late Show" and not living in her apartment because she has been besieged by reporters and paparazzi. She recently finished law school at night with a loan from Worldwide Pants, which she has repaid.

The Manhattan district attorney's office is not without evidence: Halderman deposited a bogus $2 million check after meetings with Letterman's lawyer that were secretly recorded by prosecutors. The meetings took place after Halderman, 51, left a note in Letterman's limousine Sept. 9, threatening to expose the comic's private life unless he was paid a substantial sum, according to prosecutors.

Arnot acknowledged that Halderman was under financial pressure because of alimony payments to two ex-wives, and had difficulty paying for visits to his 11-year-old son, who joined his second ex-wife in Colorado in July. But Arnot said there was no change in Halderman's financial situation that would have suddenly driven him to seek a large payoff. "He wasn't going to go and extort David Letterman for $2 million out of the blue," Arnot said.

With key players maintaining their silence, there is no way to independently verify Halderman's account of his roller-coaster relationship with Birkitt, who was given a recurring on-air role on Letterman's program during their romance. But it provides a road map to the strategy of Halderman's lawyer, Gerald Shargel, who has said there is much more to the story than the extortion plot described by Letterman and the DA's office.

Halderman had been dating Birkitt for about four years, Arnot said, when the producer made a fateful discovery last December. Halderman found a series of letters that Birkitt had written to herself, in diary form, which "reflected that there was a continuing romantic relationship between Stephanie and her boss," Arnot said. "This was the critical event that began the cataclysmic series of events that led to his arrest."

Stunned by what he believed was evidence that Birkitt was still sexually involved with Letterman, Halderman tried to end the relationship, according to Arnot. But he said Birkitt "pleaded with him, said she would break up [with Letterman] and she would be exclusively Joe's girlfriend."

The drama appeared to settle down, and Birkitt continued to receive extra pay for her "Late Show" appearances, which included comedy bits and giving out prizes. This may have been a sign of Letterman's favoritism toward his former girlfriend, or he may simply have thought she was funny on the air.

On Thursday nights, when the show wrapped for the week, Arnot says, Letterman, 62, regularly drove Birkitt in his electric Tesla to Connecticut, leaving her off just down the road from Halderman's home. If Letterman and Birkitt were still romantically involved in August, when Halderman says he saw them in an embrace, it would contradict a Worldwide Pants statement that Letterman's sexual relationships with staffers predated his marriage. He wed Regina Lasko, another former "Late Show" staffer and his steady girlfriend of two decades, in March.

Arnot, a former medical correspondent for CBS and NBC who now runs his own TV production company, called Halderman "a real, hard-core, working-stiff journalist." He said he was acting as Halderman's friend but also as a reporter, and had even contacted Letterman's public relations firm but got no return call.

"I don't have any animosity toward David Letterman," Arnot said. "He's a funny guy. I don't want any part in destroying career, pulling him down. This is Joe's side of the story here."

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