A CBS News employee has been indicted in an extortion plot against David Letterman, who was forced to acknowledge sexual relationships with female staffers on his show after the man tried to blackmail him for $2 million, the Manhattan district attorney said Friday.
Robert J. “Joe” Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show “48 Hours,” was arrested Thursday and indicted on one count of attempted first-degree grand larceny, punishable by five to 15 years upon conviction, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau said.
“Our concern here is extortion, and that’s what we’re focusing on,” Morgenthau said.
The district attorney’s office said Halderman left a letter and other material for Letterman early Sept. 9. He wrote that he needed “to make a large chunk of money” by selling Letterman a screenplay treatment.
The letter told Letterman that his world would “collapse around him” when information about his private life was disclosed. He said it would lead to “a ruined reputation” and severe damage to his professional and family life.
Letterman immediately contacted his lawyer, who arranged a meeting with Halderman. At the meeting, Halderman demanded $2 million to keep the material secret, the district attorney’s office said. After the meeting, Letterman and his lawyer contacted the DA’s office and the investigation began.
In an extraordinary monologue before millions of viewers, the late-night host admitted that he had sexual relationships with female employees. Letterman said that “this whole thing has been quite scary,” but he mixed in jokes while outlining what had happened to him.
It was a shock because the 62-year-old Letterman had married longtime girlfriend Regina Lasko in March. The couple began dating in 1986 and have a son, Harry, born in November 2003. It was not immediately clear when the relationships to which Letterman admitted took place, or how long they lasted.
Fatherhood and his heart surgery in 2000 had seemed to mellow Letterman, who took over as the most popular late-night comedy host this summer after NBC replaced Jay Leno with Conan O’Brien on the “Tonight” show.
Letterman sat behind his desk to outline the scheme after a monologue that targeted some frequent foils like Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney.
Three weeks ago, Letterman said, he got in his car early in the morning and found a package with a letter saying, “I know that you do some terrible, terrible things and that I can prove that you do some terrible things.” He acknowledged the letter contained proof.
He said it was terrifying “because there’s something insidious about (it). Is he standing down there? Is he hiding under the car? Am I going to get a tap on the shoulder?”
A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the district attorney’s office set up the undercover sting operation at the swank Jumeirah Essex House hotel in Manhattan. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation continues.
Police detectives were in an adjoining room with recording equipment and surveillance as Letterman’s attorney met with Halderman and discussed terms of the extortion, the official said.
“At one point he told the attorney that he didn’t want to have to work for the rest of his life, and the number he came up with was $2 million,” the law enforcement official said.
There were two subsequent meetings, with the man given a phony $2 million check at the last one. Letterman joked on his show it was like the giant ceremonial check given to winners of golf tournaments.
He told the audience that he had to testify before a grand jury on Thursday.
“I was worried for myself; I was worried for my family,” he said. “I felt menaced by this, and I had to tell them all of the creepy things that I had done.”
He said, “The creepy stuff was that I have had sex with women who work for me on this show. My response to that is yes, I have. Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Yes, it would, especially for the women.”
Whether they wanted to make the relationships public was up to them, he said.
“It’s been a very bizarre experience,” he said. “I felt like I needed to protect these people. I need to protect my family. I need to protect myself. Hope to protect my job.”
CBS said in a statement that “we believe his comments speak for themselves.”
Letterman’s “Late Show” has been on the air since 1993. Before that, “Late Night with David Letterman” aired on NBC from 1982 to 1993.
Letterman won’t be taping a show Friday. Friday night’s show was taped Thursday.
Letterman was also 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.