Oct. 2, 2009 — -- An award-winning CBS News producer was arraigned in a Manhattan courthouse today, charged with blackmailing late-night comedian David Letterman for "a large chunk of money."
Robert "Joe" Halderman, 51, a longtime Emmy-award winning producer for CBS News' "48 Hours," was arrested Thursday outside the network's Manhattan offices and could face up to 15 years in state prison if convicted.
Halderman, with his hands cuffed behind his back, pleaded not guilty during his arraignment today and bail was set at $200,000. Halderman posted bail, but Judge Michael Melkonian also issued a temporary order of protection to keep Halderman away from Letterman.
Assistant District Attorney Judy Salwen, deputy chief of the Special Prosecutions Bureau, had originally requested that bail be set at $500,000, saying, "The defendent attempted to extort $2 million from David Letterman."
"There is a serious question as to whether [Halderman] will return to court if lower bail is set," said Salwen.
Salwen said that tape recordings of two meetings between Halderman and Letterman's attorneys showed "clear, actual and explicit" threats against the comedian.
Halderman's lawyer, defense attorney Gerald Shargel, said today that he plans on going to trial with his client.
"There is another side to this story," Shargel said. "If I listened to what prosecutors said, I would be out of business a long time ago."
"The other side is something I am not going to discuss today," he added. "This story is far more complicated that what you heard this afternoon."
Shargel defended Halderman saying, "He has an impeccable reputation, he was a producer at CBS for 27 years, he's 52 years old. He was a responsible member of the community... He's never been in trouble with the law."
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau spoke at a packed press conference before the arraignment and said Halderman demanded to be paid $2 million in an initial meeting with Letterman on Sept. 9 when Halderman allegedly waited outside Letterman's New York City apartment at 6 a.m. with "with a letter and other materials."
Halderman then directed Letterman to "call him by 8 a.m. to make a deal."
Letterman met with Halderman again on Sept. 15, 23, and 30 at Manhattan's Essex House, and those conversations were recorded by Letterman's attorney, Morgenthau said.
"During subsequent meetings Halderman repeated his demand," the prosecutor said.
Halderman had threatened to reveal "personal and private information" if Letterman did not accede to his demand to purchase a one-page screenplay he presented at the initial meeting, said Morgenthau. The DA said the screenplay described a scenario in which Letterman's world would "collapse all around him" and would lead to a "ruined reputation."
Also mentioned in the screenplay, according to the DA, was Letterman's professional success and a reference to his "beautiful and loving son."
Morgenthau said the screenplay "covers all the necessary facts" to indict Halderman with one count of attempted grand larceny in the first degree.
Morgenthau said the phony $2 million check Letterman gave to Halderman was "designed to bounce" and that Halderman was arrested after trying to deposit the check in Connecticut on Oct. 1.
The prosecutor, in an apparent reference to Letterman's admitted philandering, said that he wanted to be clear that "we are not here to enforce the blue laws," but to "enforce the statutes pertaining to extortion."
Robert Halderman Once Lived With Letterman's Personal Assistant
Assistant District Attorney Mark Dwyer suggested to ABC News that the alleged extorter was careless. "If I were extorting somebody I wouldn't want a check," he said.
Dwyer said that it in cashing the check, Halderman "was going to pretend it was the legitimate sale of a screenplay."
Halderman lived until recently with Stephanie Birkitt, 34, who had previously been a personal assistant to Letterman. Public documents indicate that Birkitt and Halderman lived together in Norwalk, Conn., from August 2005 to August 2009. Birkitt now has an apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Halderman has been married and divorced twice, according to public records. He had two children with his second wife as well as three step-children. His ex-wife won custody of the children and now lives in Colorado.
Divorce records show that Halderman was ordered to pay $6,800 a month in alimony and child support starting May 1, 2004. That would mean that to date Halderman has paid a hefty $442,000 to his ex-wife.
Halderman's lawyer Shargel has defended some of the city's most prominent criminals, including notorious mafia don John Gotti. Halderman's most recent assignment at CBS News was to produce a "48 Hours Mystery" piece on Gotti family.
"I'm doing everything necessary and appropriate to get him out," Shargel told ABC News. The lawyer said he has no prior relationship to Halderman.
Letterman, 62, confessed during a taping of "The Late Show" for broadcast Thursday night that he had had sex with members of his staff.
"This morning I did something I've never done in my life," Letterman told his audience. "I had to go downtown and testify before a grand jury."
Letterman revealed to the studio audience that he received a package three weeks ago containing a threat to reveal those indiscretions "if Letterman did not pay the individual a large sum of money" -- specified in a later communication as $2 million.
He said that the package contained a letter that said, "I know that you do some terrible terrible things, and I can prove that you do these terrible things ... and sure enough what was contained in the package was proof that I do terrible, terrible things."
The audience laughed nervously as Letterman described how he'd called his attorney and then set up a meeting with his blackmailer in which the plotter told him he wanted to write a screenplay about him that included sordid details of the talk show host's life.
At a third meeting, Letterman, with the assistance of the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, handed the blackmailer a phony $2 million check. It was then that the extortionist revealed he also planned to write a book about Letterman's life, also revealing details of his past sexual infidelities.
"A companion piece to the screenplay," Letterman cracked weakly.
Letterman then acknowledged unspecified sexual relationships with female staff members to a silent audience.
"My response to that [allegation] is, 'Yes I have.' Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would," Letterman said.
"Especially for the women," he managed to joke.
"I feel like I need to protect these people. I need to certainly protect my family," he said.
Letterman Suspect Used to Live With Letterman Aide
CBS News released a statement saying that he has been suspended from his job as the investigation continues.
Colleagues were dumbstruck by the charges against Halderman. "I really can't believe the charges against him. I don't understand the motivation," said one producer who had worked with Halderman in the past.
The producer described Halderman not only as a well paid producer but one who was a "top shelf producer, highly regarded by CBS." Halderman was routinely entrusted with top stories ranging from the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, to assignments for "48 Hours."
Birkitt told her alma mater Wake Forest University that she originally interned in the writers' department at "Late Show" in 1996, and after graduating in 1997 worked at "48 Hours." She later returned to the "Late Show."
In a subsequent interview with EW.com, Birkitt denied Letterman was the cranky persona he appears to be on TV. "He's the best boss I've ever had," she gushed.
Earlier this year, Letterman announced on his show his marriage to longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko, who he began dating in the 1980s. The pair have a son, Harry Joseph Letterman, whose impending arrival Letterman announced on his show in 2003.
He did not mention his wife specifically or any other details of these affairs during his Thursday taping.
According to a source close to Letterman, all the liaisons Halderman was allegedly going to reveal regarding Letterman occurred prior to his March 2009 marriage.
The comedian went on to thank the Special Prosecution Bureau of the Manhattan District Attorney's office for its assistance, which culminated in the Halderman's arrest early in the day Thursday.
CBS issued a statement late Thursday night regarding the investigation and Letterman's decision to speak out on his show: "Mr. Letterman addressed the issue during the show's broadcast last night, and we believe his comments speak for themselves."
Howard Kurtz, a media critic for The Washington Post, said Letterman handled the situation "reasonably well" but cautioned that late-night comedians have a "delicate" relationship with their audience, especially because they often point out the infidelities of others.
"Somebody's going to put together a tape with all the jokes Letterman has done about womanizing public figures," Kurtz told Robin Roberts on "Good Morning America." "So if he becomes a punchline himself, I don't think he will lose his job over this, but clearly it undermines his job as a performer."
This is not the first extortion plot alleged to have targeted Letterman. In 2005, Kelly Frank, who worked as a handyman on Letterman's Rocky Mountain ranch in Montana, was arrested for allegedly plotting to kidnap Letterman's then-16-month-old son, Harry. Frank pleaded not guilty but got 10 years in jail for overcharging Letterman.
At the time, the comedian took it all in stride.
"I don't think I'll ever get tired of seeing my house on television while I'm in my house watching television," Letterman said on a March 2005 show.
Letterman Pointed Out Infidelities of Others
Letterman was a longtime bachelor after his first marriage ended in divorce in 1977.
He has had at least one relationship with a co-worker in the past. Merrill Markoe, a comedian and author who was his longtime writer, was his girlfriend in the 1980s.
Even so, Letterman has joked about others' infidelities. Numerous jokes and at least two of Letterman's famous Top 10 lists highlighted South Carolina Gov. Rick Sanford's extramarital affair. Letterman included the "Top 10 Surprising Facts About Mark Sanford" and the "Top 10 Gov. Mark Sanford Excuses" during the days after the governor admitted to having an affair this June.
Letterman has been a fixture on late night network television since 1982 after a short stint with a morning show on NBC. As host of "Late Night" on NBC and then "The Late Show" on CBS, he is second only to Johnny Carson as the longest-running late night host.
ABC News' Eileen Murphy, Michael James, Lindsay Goldwert and Brandon Bodow contributed to this report.