NEW YORK — A CBS News employee pleaded not guilty Friday to trying to blackmail David Letterman for $2 million in a plot that spurred the TV host to acknowledge sexual relationships with women who worked on his show.
Robert J. “Joe” Halderman, a producer for the true-crime show 48 Hours, entered the plea in a Manhattan court as he was arraigned on one count of attempted first-degree grand larceny, punishable by five to 15 years upon conviction. Bail was set at $200,000.
Assistant District Attorney Judy Salwen told the judge Mr. Halderman was in debt, but did not elaborate. “The evidence is compelling,” she said. “It shows the defendant is desperate, and he is capable of doing anything.”
The prosecutor said Mr. Halderman gave the talk show host a package of materials that “contained clear, explicit, and actual threats that indicate this defendant [wanted to] destroy the reputation of Mr. Letterman and to submit him and his family to humiliation and ridicule.”
Mr. Halderman, hands cuffed behind his back, stared at the floor during most of the hearing and said only, “not guilty.”
His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, said Mr. Halderman worked at CBS for 27 years and had no prior criminal record. He described him as an involved father, who coached soccer, baseball, and football for his two children, ages 11 and 18.
“This story is far more complicated than what you heard this afternoon,” Mr. Shargel said outside of court, but he would not elaborate.
Mr. Halderman was ordered in 2007 to pay his ex-wife $6,800 monthly in child and spousal support until May, 2011, when the payments will be reduced to $5,966 until May, 2014, according to papers filed in Stamford Superior Court.
He had asked for a reduction to $2,039 per month because his ex-wife, Patty Montet, was sharing a house in New Canaan with a man. But Ms. Montet argued — and the judge agreed — that her living arrangement was for convenience and not romantic.
Ms. Montet also claimed Mr. Halderman was getting $1,500 a month from his live-in girlfriend, Stephanie Birkitt, who was an assistant to Mr. Letterman on the Late Show and frequently appeared on camera with the host in comedy bits. Mr. Halderman earned about $214,000 in 2007.
“Mr. Halderman claims he is struggling financially, but it is difficult to see what, other than mismanagement and extravagant spending, is the reason for this,” Ms. Montet's attorneys said in the court file.
“His is a world of golf trips, vacations, increasing 401k assets, comprehensive benefits, security in employment, earnings as an award-winning producer for CBS, and home ownership.”
Prosecutors say Mr. Halderman demanded $2 million last month in exchange for not releasing information that would ruin Mr. Letterman's reputation. Mr. Letterman told his viewers Thursday that the threat concerned sexual liaisons with female staffers.
The district attorney's office said Mr. Halderman left a letter and other material for Mr. Letterman early Sept. 9. He wrote that he needed “to make a large chunk of money” by selling Mr. Letterman a screenplay treatment — an entertainment-business term for a synopsis used to pitch a screenplay.
The supposed treatment said Mr. Letterman's world would “collapse around him” when information about his private life was disclosed, leading to “a ruined reputation” and damaging his professional and family life, prosecutors said.
The note also mentioned Mr. Letterman's “beautiful and loving son,” prosecutors said.
It was not clear whether the reference was meant as a threat to harm the boy. Mr. Letterman was the victim of a 2005 plot by a former painter at his Montana ranch to kidnap his nanny and son for a ransom.
After receiving the materials, Mr. Letterman immediately contacted his lawyer, who arranged a meeting with Mr. Halderman. At the meeting, Mr. Halderman demanded $2 million to keep the material secret, the district attorney's office said.
After the meeting, Mr. Letterman and his lawyer contacted the prosecutor'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. Mr. Letterman said “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 talk show host 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 Mr. Letterman admitted took place, or how long they lasted.
Three weeks ago, Mr. Letterman said, he got in his car early in the morning and found a package with the 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 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.
Detectives were in an adjoining room with recording equipment and surveillance as Mr. Letterman's attorney met with Mr. 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. Mr. 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.”