A former television producer pressured by debt and driven by jealousy admitted Tuesday he tried to extract vengeance and money by shaking down David Letterman in a case that bared the late-night icon’s affairs with staffers.
Robert “Joe” Halderman pleaded guilty to attempted grand larceny, acknowledging he tried to chisel $2 million from the TV show host. He threatened to destroy Letterman’s reputation by airing his workplace dalliances — using information authorities have said he mined from a former girlfriend’s diary.
The plea deal by Halderman, a producer for CBS’ “48 Hours Mystery” at the time, spares him a potential 15 years in prison had he been convicted. The 52-year-old is due instead to get a six-month jail sentence and 1,000 hours of community service.
The plea deal also spares Letterman the prospect of a trial that could have put his private life on display, though the comedian masterfully defused much of Halderman’s potential bombshell last fall by revealing that he had slept with women on his staff.
Under the plea agreement, Halderman must give prosecutors all copies of any diary entries, photos, screenplay notes or other materials he has concerning Letterman and must agree never to reveal the contents.
Halderman apologized to the host of the “Late Show,” also on CBS, as he spelled out the details of his crime in a Manhattan court, reading a prepared statement at first so quickly that the judge asked him to slow down.
“I attempted to extort $2 million from David Letterman by threatening to disclose personal and private information about him, whether true or false,” he said.
Halderman acknowledged delivering the threat to Letterman’s driver, in the form of a screenplay outline, or treatment.
“This so-called treatment was just a thinly veiled threat to ruin Mr. Letterman if he did not pay me a lot of money,” said Halderman, dressed in a gray suit.
He subsequently met with Letterman’s lawyer, who eventually gave him a phony $2 million check.
“I knew throughout this time that I was not engaged in a legitimate business transaction with Mr. Letterman and that what I was doing was against New York law,” Halderman said, adding that he realized he had violated the privacy of Letterman and his family.
“I feel great remorse for what I have done,” Halderman said, apologizing to Letterman, the comic’s family and his own former girlfriend, Stephanie Birkitt.
Defense attorney Gerald Shargel said later Tuesday his client “was both jealous and enraged” and under financial pressure.
Halderman, who made about $214,000 in 2007, was struggling with money in the wake of a divorce, according to court papers filed by his ex-wife’s lawyers.
Outside court, Halderman repeated his apologies, declined any interviews and said no more. He remains free on bail until his sentencing, set for May 4.
CBS News said Halderman was no longer an employee but declined to give any specifics on whether he had quit or been fired.
Letterman addressed the case during the taping of his Tuesday night show, telling his audience he initially was “concerned and full of anxiety and nervous and worried” when he went to prosecutors months ago. He thanked police and prosecutors for their professional and skillful handling of it.
While he couldn’t entirely keep it in his grasp — the fallout included an online Vanity Fair article in the fall by a writer who claimed sexual favoritism drove her to quit Letterman’s show in 1990 — viewers have more than stuck with him. His show averages 4.14 million viewers today, up 6 percent from 3.91 million a year ago.
But now, after beating rival Conan O’Brien on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Letterman is again facing Jay Leno, who returned to host “Tonight” last week after nine months’ absence. In past years, Leno consistently beat Letterman in the ratings.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. noted that Letterman had come to authorities knowing the case could push his private life into public view.
“Mr. Letterman is a public figure, but like all New Yorkers he has a right to a certain degree of privacy in his public life,” said Vance, who took over the case from predecessor Robert Morgenthau in January.
Halderman’s lawyer, who had raised free-speech and other issues in his attempt to portray the producer’s behavior as a business deal, said Halderman ultimately decided he needed to end the case.
“We had a novel defense here involving complicated legal issues. I was very excited about the defense,” Shargel said. “But there would be a long road ahead of us, and considering the risks and the rewards and the need for Joe to put this behind him and get on with his life, those needs were paramount.”
Letterman married longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko last year. They began dating in 1986 and have a 6-year-old son.
Letterman also was the victim of a 2005 plot by a former painter on his Montana ranch to kidnap his nanny and son for a $5 million ransom. The former painter, Kelly A. Frank, briefly escaped from prison in 2007 before being recaptured.