Ex-producer pleads guilty in Letterman extortion case

Halderman (Louis Lanzano - AP)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

In a move that spares David Letterman a potentially messy trial that would have focused on his affairs with "Late Show" staffers, a former CBS News producer pleaded guilty Tuesday to attempting to extort $2 million from the comedian.

Robert "Joe" Halderman, who had worked for "48 Hours" before his recent dismissal by the network, entered the plea in a Manhattan courtroom, ending a high-profile melodrama that prompted Letterman to apologize on his late-night program for what he called "creepy" behavior.

Halderman, who pleaded to a reduced charge of second-degree larceny, will be sentenced under the agreement to six months in jail, 4 1/2 years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service. He had faced up to 15 years behind bars.

Letterman released a statement thanking New York prosecutors and police, saying: "When they became involved with this case, I had complete faith that a just and appropriate result was inevitable. On behalf of my family, I am extremely grateful for their tireless efforts."

On Tuesday night's program, Letterman again thanked the prosecutors for their handling of his "legal trouble," saying: "I'd never been involved in anything like this in my life, and I was concerned and full of anxiety and nervous and worried."

Daniel Horwitz, an attorney for Letterman, earlier told reporters it was "a fitting end to the case."

The CBS host, who apologized repeatedly -- first awkwardly, then more seriously, then turning the ordeal into monologue material -- had weathered his brush with the tabloid-ready scandal. The public seemed to give him a pass and his program moved into first place after Jay Leno left the "Tonight Show," although Leno reclaimed the ratings lead when he returned from his disastrous prime-time experiment last week.

Despite some initial stumbles, Letterman "has handled this very well," said former NBC correspondent Fred Francis, who now provides media advice to companies at 15-Seconds.com. Letterman is "very lucky," Francis said, because "the nasty details of his sordid behavior will stay hidden. No one gets to hear David Letterman from the witness stand."

Letterman, who last year married his longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko, the mother of his young son, has never said how many sexual affairs he had or commented on the account of a former intern who said she was "madly in love with him" during their relationship.

Halderman's friend, the journalist Dr. Bob Arnot, said the longtime producer "sounded very upbeat, very optimistic" after deciding to accept the plea offer. Arnot said Halderman's legal team waited until Cyrus Vance Jr. took over as Manhattan district attorney from retiring incumbent Robert Morgenthau, who brought the case, because "they knew they'd get a better deal."

The case burst into public view in October, when Letterman told New York prosecutors that Halderman had left a one-page letter in his limousine, threatening to reveal secret details of his personal life. The note said the comedian's world was "about to collapse around him" unless Letterman paid Halderman a substantial sum of money. Halderman's lawyer later said his client was trying to sell Letterman on a proposed screenplay.

Halderman, who was under financial pressure because of alimony payments to two ex-wives, deposited a bogus $2 million check after hotel meetings with Letterman's lawyer that were secretly recorded.

The attempt to pressure Letterman grew out of his relationship with Stephanie Birkitt, a longtime "Late Show" assistant who had a recurring on-air role. Birkitt became Halderman's live-in girlfriend after ending the affair with her boss, and Halderman was later furious when he saw the two in an embrace near his Connecticut home last summer, according to Arnot.

In his statement to state Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon, Halderman said: "In September of 2009, I attempted to extort $2 million from David Letterman by threatening to disclose personal and private information about him, whether true or false."

Outside the court, Halderman said: "I apologize to Mr. Letterman, to his family, to Stephanie Birkitt and her family, and my family and friends." He left without taking questions.

CBS limited itself to a one-sentence statement calling the proceedings "a difficult situation for the people involved."

Arnot cast the sentence as a "win" for Halderman under the circumstances, adding: "This guy had the chutzpah to go up against David Letterman when Letterman stole his girlfriend."

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