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Motion filed to dismiss Letterman case

Robert Joel Halderman's attorney says his client's actions did not meet New York state's definition of extortion. Talk show host's lawyer disagrees.

November 11, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — Robert Joel Halderman did not think he was breaking the law when he allegedly demanded $2 million from David Letterman in exchange for the rights to a screenplay treatment about the talk show host's affairs with female staffers, a lawyer for the CBS News producer said Tuesday.

In a motion to dismiss the case filed in New York Supreme Court, defense attorney Gerald Shargel claimed Halderman's actions did not meet the state's definition of extortion because he had a right to sell his story idea.

"This was a commercial transaction," Shargel told reporters after a brief court appearance as Halderman stood beside him. "It was nothing more. It did not violate the penal law."

Halderman, dressed in a dark suit and a Kelly green tie, maintained a somber expression throughout the court hearing and news conference but did not comment.

The veteran producer for the CBS newsmagazine "48 Hours Mystery" was arrested Oct. 1 after attempting to deposit a fake check for $2 million given to him by Letterman's attorney. He pleaded not guilty to one count of attempted grand larceny in the first degree, a crime punishable by as many as 15 years in prison, and has been suspended from CBS.

Shargel said the Manhattan district attorney's office is pursuing the case because of Letterman's profile.

"I think that celebrity is why we are where we are today," he said.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney's office declined to comment. But Daniel J. Horwitz, an attorney for Letterman, called the producer's actions "classic blackmail, no matter how Mr. Halderman's lawyer wants to dress it up."

Horwitz said he is confident that the motion to dismiss will be denied and the case will proceed. "Mr. Letterman is fully prepared to see this case through to the end, including testifying at a trial to see that justice is done," he added.

A judge is set to rule on the motion in January.

The alleged blackmail attempt exploded into public view last month after Letterman revealed the episode on the air, saying an extortionist demanded money to keep quiet about the talk show host's sexual liaisons with employees.

One of the women was Stephanie Birkitt, a longtime assistant to Letterman who was also Halderman's girlfriend at the time, according to the defense's court filing. Halderman first learned of the relationship in 2008, along with evidence that Letterman "fostered an environment of workplace sexual misconduct that, under any definition, amounted to actionable sexual harassment," Shargel wrote.

Letterman's representatives disputed that charge. "In 29 years in the entertainment business, there's never been a claim of sexual harassment against him," Horwitz said.

Birkitt promised Halderman she would break off the affair, according to the motion, but he discovered last summer that she was still involved with Letterman. (That contradicts assertions by Letterman's representatives last month that his relationships with staffers preceded his wedding in March to his longtime girlfriend. A spokesman for Letterman had no comment Tuesday.)

Betrayed, Halderman decided to write a story about Letterman's off-screen behavior, knowing it would be a valuable subject for a book or movie, the motion said. The producer put a one-page summary of his idea titled "Treatment for a Screenplay," along with "source material," in Manila envelope and gave it to Letterman's driver Sept. 9.

In a subsequent meeting with Letterman attorney James Jackoway, Halderman asked to be paid $2 million for the rights to the story, "an amount he estimated to be its fair value if he were to offer it for sale on the open market," according to the motion.

When Jackoway countered with an offer of less money, Halderman refused.

"If that's what you want to do then we're done," he said, according to a transcript of their recorded conversations cited in the motion. "I'll write the book and I'll send you the advance copy."

Shargel argued that Halderman's actions were consistent with a "pure commercial transaction" and demonstrated that he did not think he was breaking the law, a key element of the extortion statute. He noted that the producer asked for a written purchase agreement and accepted a check, creating a paper trail that would make it difficult to cover up a crime.

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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