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Letterman harasser pleads guilty, gets six months in jail

March 9, 2010 | 11:41 am
A veteran CBS News producer whose actions caused late-night host David Letterman to admit publicly that he had had sexual liaisons with members of his staff pleaded guilty Tuesday to attempted grand larceny and will go to jail for six months.     

The deal accepted by Robert Joel Halderman brought to a close an embarrassing chapter for Letterman, whose on-air confession in the fall triggered scrutiny of his behavior behind the scenes.

Halderman, the live-in boyfriend of a longtime assistant to the late-night comedian, was accused of demanding $2 million in exchange for a screenplay treatment he wrote about affairs Letterman had had with female employees. He pleaded guilty to one count of attempted grand larceny in the second degree, accepting a six-month jail term and 4 1/2 years probation.

"I feel great remorse for what I've done," Halderman said in court.

Defense attorney Gerald Shargel had sought to get the court to drop the case, arguing that Halderman's actions did not meet the definition of extortion because he had a right to sell his story idea. But a New York state Supreme Court judge rejected the defense’s motion in January.

At the time, Shargel said Halderman was determined to fight the charge at trial and maintained that he had a solid defense. He said he planned to introduce evidence that the late-night host committed sexual harassment, something vigorously disputed by Letterman’s representatives.

The defense said Letterman was involved with Stephanie Birkitt, a longtime assistant to the comedian, who was also Halderman's girlfriend at the time.        

Halderman, a veteran producer for the CBS news magazine "48 Hours Mystery,” was furious when he discovered the affair and decided to write a story about Letterman's off-screen behavior and try to sell it to the host – a move prosecutors said amounted to blackmail.

In September, the producer put a one-page summary of his idea, titled "Treatment for a Screenplay," in an envelope and gave it to Letterman's driver. The late-night host then contacted the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which arranged a sting that led to Halderman’s arrest Oct. 1 after he attempted to deposit a fake check for $2 million given to him by Letterman's attorney.

Letterman revealed the episode on the air, describing himself as the victim of an extortion plot. The next week, he apologized publicly to his wife, acknowledging that public opinion had turned against him. “If you hurt a person and it's your responsibility, you try to fix it," he said on his program. "Let me tell you, folks, I got my work cut out for me."

The scandal quickly faded from the headlines and never hurt his ratings. Soon, Letterman's personal woes were overshadowed by NBC's late-night problems with Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien.

Letterman thanked Manhattan Dist. Atty. Cyrus R. Vance Jr., former Dist. Atty. Robert M. Morgenthau, the special prosecutions bureau in the D.A.'s office and the New York City Police Department in a statement, adding, "On behalf of my family, I am extremely grateful for their tireless efforts."

-- Matea Gold

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