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Letterman defendant's lawyer plans sex-harassment angle

The attorney for accused blackmailer Robert Joel Halderman says he'll present evidence implicating the talk show host.

October 07, 2009|Matea Gold

NEW YORK — Gerald Shargel, a veteran criminal defense attorney who is representing the CBS producer accused of trying to blackmail David Letterman, said Tuesday that he plans to argue that the late-night host committed sexual harassment if the case goes to trial.

"I have evidence of it, and I intend to share that in a courtroom," said Shargel, who is representing "48 Hours Mystery" producer Robert Joel Halderman, who prosecutors say demanded $2 million from Letterman in order to keep quiet about relationships the comic had with female staffers. "I think it's relevant because it's actually part of the evidence that I think the district attorney will be admitting at the trial."

The line of defense was first reported by the New York Times.

Shargel said he has not yet received any documents from the Manhattan district attorney's office. "I'm doing my own independent investigation," he said. A spokesman for Letterman declined to comment. A spokeswoman from the district attorney's office also had no comment.

Shargel would not say whether the evidence he has relates to Stephanie Birkitt, a longtime assistant to the comic. But the lawyer said it is "absolutely clear" that Birkitt -- who until recently was sharing a Connecticut home with Halderman -- also had a relationship with Letterman.

Birkitt, 34, got her start on the "Late Show" as an intern in 1996 and went on to work as Letterman's assistant after a stint at "48 Hours." She is still with "Late Show," according to a spokesman for Worldwide Pants, Letterman's production company, who declined to specify her current role.

While evidence that Letterman committed sexual harassment could bolster the prosecution's case that Halderman had embarrassing information about the late-night host, Shargel said it also would support his defense.

"This is all about what Mr. Halderman's intent was, and I think this has some relevance to his state of mind," he said. "It's part of a larger story that I'm not going to get into now."

Jeremy Saland, a criminal defense attorney and former Manhattan assistant district attorney, said the issue might be relevant if the defense can establish that Halderman was seeking the money to rectify the sexual harassment for a victim, not for his own gain.

"A Manhattan Supreme Court judge will certainly distinguish between an attempt to dirty up Mr. Letterman by accusations of harassment and an attempt to establish the harassment as a basis for a valid legal defense," Saland said.

Shargel maintains that while Halderman attempted to deposit a $2-million check from Letterman, he did not have criminal intent and isn't guilty of extortion.

"I'm not a big fan of trying cases in the public, but I'm dealing with a situation with someone who has an unusual degree of access to the public," Shargel said of Letterman. "All I wanted to do is get out there on behalf of my client and say, don't rush to judgment."

In the short run, the controversy is boosting Letterman's ratings. On Monday, 5.7 million viewers tuned in to watch the host apologize for his behavior, 19% more than his current season average, according to Nielsen.

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matea.gold@latimes.com

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