Letterman Suspect's Novel Defense
Robert Joel Halderman wasn’t trying to blackmail David Letterman over his workplace peccadilloes—he was trying to sell a story, the suspect’s lawyer says. Lloyd Grove reports from the media scrum.
So why was this man smiling?
Former CBS News producer Robert Joel Halderman is in a world of hurt—and mostly he looked it during his appearance Tuesday in New York State Supreme Court. David Letterman’s smooth-faced alleged blackmailer—shorn of that devil-may-care goatee from last month’s arraignment and now wearing a sober gray suit and a green patterned tie—bore the appropriately stricken expression of a man in difficulty.
Not only has the 51-year-old Halderman lost his job at 48 Hours, where he was an Emmy-winning producer earning more than $200,000 a year, but he also faces hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills and possibly 15 years of prison time on a felony indictment of attempted first-degree grand larceny.
“Stated in simplest terms, we argue that Mr. Halderman did not violate the law. He never had any intentions to violate the law. He was involved in a commercial transaction.”
Yet the accused—standing mutely beside his defense attorney, Gerald Shargel, before a thicket of cameras—couldn’t suppress a tiny grin when Shargel cracked to a nosy reporter in the media mob outside the courthouse: “His fees are my business. That’s why it’s good to be me!”
Amid general laughter, a blond woman brandishing a microphone cooed: “That was a great bite! Thank you!”
Someone else asked: “Jerry, how has your client been holding up?”
Shargel gave Halderman a stagily appraising glance. “He looks good,” the lawyer announced. “He’s lost weight and he’s in fighting shape.”
The New York media just love them some Shargel, and the affection is lavishly reciprocated. A litigator best known for defending colorful mobsters and other homicidal maniacs, notably the late “Dandy Don” John Gotti, Shargel got off some other camera-ready lines, minutes after he and Assistant District Attorney Judy Salwen discussed his various motions, accompanied by a 34-page legal memorandum, to dismiss Halderman’s indictment, quash a couple of search warrants, and declare New York’s extortion statute “unconstitutionally vague.” State Supreme Court Justice Charles H. Solomon gave Salwen until Dec. 15 to respond.
The defendant’s legal troubles stem from his alleged threat to expose the married Letterman’s workplace peccadilloes in a book or a screenplay unless the CBS late-night star paid him $2 million. In September Halderman allegedly held three negotiating sessions with Letterman’s entertainment lawyer, Jim Jackoway, who wore a wire to the last two, supplied by the cops. Halderman was arrested Oct. 1 after depositing Letterman’s bogus $2 million check, and Letterman went on the air that night to give his version of events.
The producer’s troubles apparently started with a sensational love triangle involving him, Letterman, and the talk-show host’s 34-year-old former personal assistant (and frequent on-air comic foil), Stephanie Birkitt. According to Shargel’s memo, which gives more juicy details than previously provided, Birkitt and Halderman began dating after his 2004 divorce from his second wife, and the following year Birkitt moved into his house in Norwalk, Connecticut.
“In late 2008, however,” the memo states, “Halderman discovered that Birkitt had been unfaithful and was carrying on a sexual relationship with Letterman. He also discovered evidence that Letterman had created and fostered an environment of workplace sexual misconduct that, under any definition, amounted to actionable sexual harassment.” (Not that Halderman was an angel in this regard; during his 27 years at CBS, he developed a reputation among his colleagues for conducting numerous extramarital flings, some with co-workers, as well as occasionally participating in barroom brawls.)
Last December, after Halderman confronted Birkitt with evidence of her relationship with Letterman, she apologized and promised to end it, the memo states. “In the summer of 2009, Halderman discovered that despite her assurances to the contrary, Birkitt’s relationship with Letterman continued unabated,” the memo continues. “Shortly thereafter, Halderman began to write…On the morning of September 9, 2009, Halderman placed a one-page screenplay treatment that he had written into a manila envelope, along with copies of much of his source material… [and] delivered the envelope to Letterman’s driver.”
Shargel’s memo quotes selectively from the Halderman-Jackoway tapes, cherry-picking the conversations most favorable to the notion that Halderman wasn’t trying to blackmail Letterman, he was merely trying to sell him a highly marketable literary property. At one point, according to the memo-quoted transcript, the producer told Letterman’s lawyer: “I have no plans to do anything other than either sell you this option, this screenplay to you and therefore you own the story, or if you don’t and you’re not interested, as I’ve said then that’s fine and I will proceed and I will do what I want to do, which is what I’ve been thinking about doing anyway, which is writing a book. So your option is very simple.”
On Tuesday, Shargel told the assembled media mob: “Stated in simplest terms, we argue that Mr. Halderman did not violate the law. He never had any intentions to violate the law. He was involved in a commercial transaction.”
He added: “There was no extortion. There was a treatment for sale. The facts in this case are largely undisputed. They’re simple and straightforward. This was a commercial transaction. It did not violate the penal law. The District Attorney’s office jumped all over this, I suggest, without being appropriately objective. I think [Letterman’s] celebrity is why we are where we are today.”
Shargel vowed: “I am here until this case is resolved. I am here to try the case, to defend Mr. Halderman. There is no compromise. There will be no compromise.”
It was, to be sure, a Bonfire of the Vanities moment, and was followed almost immediately by another one.
A stocky lawyer named Daniel J. Horwitz—late of Bernie Madoff’s defense team—stepped up to the cameras, identified himself as one of Letterman’s attorneys, and proceeded to trash Shargel’s arguments.
“David Letterman is not on trial,” Horwitz declared. “In 29 years in the entertainment business, there has never been a claim of sexual harassment against him. Dave Letterman is the victim in this case. It was he who decided to stand up to Mr. Halderman’s extortion demands and, like any responsible citizen, Mr. Letterman reported the crime to the authorities.”
Horwitz added: “Mr. Halderman repeatedly demanded $2 million from Mr. Letterman. Any attempt to dress this up as anything other than classic blackmail is sophistry by Mr. Halderman’s lawyer.”
At which point the bonfire died down and the media dispersed—ready and eager in due course to stoke it up again.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.