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Letterman played his role in an elaborate sting

The sun was not yet up when David Letterman stepped into a limousine outside his home and saw the one-page letter that threatened to reveal the secret details of his personal life.

It was 6 a.m. on Sept. 9, and the CBS star saw that whoever was trying to extort him had the goods. The person said he knew that the comedian had done terrible things, that he'd had sex with women who worked for him at the Late Show. And, the letter warned, he had just two hours to respond.

What followed was three meetings at New York's stately Essex House, the last of which, on Wednesday, was secretly recorded by detectives in an adjoining hotel room. And in an undeniable black eye for the network, prosecutors said Friday that the extortionist was a veteran CBS News producer who proceeded to deposit the bogus $2 million check handed him by Letterman's attorney as part of the undercover sting.

Robert "Joe" Halderman, a veteran staffer at CBS's crime series 48 Hours Mystery, warned in the note that Letterman's world was "about to collapse around" him unless he paid a substantial sum, prosecutors said. By their account, Halderman wrote that he needed "to make a large chunk of money" or Letterman would face a "ruined reputation" — through the release of a screenplay with the embarrassing details.

Halderman, 51, who was indicted Friday on attempted first-degree grand larceny charges, pleaded not guilty in a Manhattan courtroom and was freed on $200,000 bail. The charges carry a prison term of five to 15 years.

The extraordinary spectacle of one of America's best-known comics facing an alleged shakedown — and discussing his sexual relationships before a national audience — began Thursday after a seemingly routine monologue. Letterman, 62, revealed the plot and acknowledged that he had engaged in what he called "creepy" behavior.

Letterman told his audience he had testified before a grand jury and had acknowledged the relationships. "My response to that is, yes I have," he said on the show. "Would it be embarrassing if it were made public? Perhaps it would. I feel like I need to protect these people. I need to certainly protect my family."

Stephanie Birkitt, a former Letterman assistant, emerged Friday as a figure in the case. Birkitt, 34, lived with Halderman in Norwalk, Conn., at least until recently.

She appeared in skits, dressed up in costumes, gave out prizes and served as a correspondent for Letterman. Birkitt also worked for a time at 48 Hours Mystery, the newsmagazine that employs Halderman.

The case thrust Letterman into a white-hot spotlight just weeks after he gained the upper hand in the late-night comedy wars, pulling ahead of NBC's Tonight Show after Jay Leno moved to prime time and handed the reins to Conan O'Brien.

Leno didn't waste a moment commenting on the situation. He kicked off his monologue on NBC's The Jay Leno Show Friday with jokes about Letterman.

He opened: "If you came here tonight for sex with a talk show host, you've got the wrong studio."

Letterman openly had a long-term relationship with Merrill Markoe while she was a producer and writer on his NBC program, Late Night. Letterman, who moved to CBS in 1993, has been dating Regina Lasko, a former staffer herself, for two decades. The two had a son, Harry, in November 2003 and were quietly married in March.

The sexual relationships took place before Letterman's marriage, said Tom Keaney, spokesman for Letterman's production company, Worldwide Pants. Keaney also said Letterman "is not in violation" of the company's harassment policy "and no one has ever raised a complaint against him.''

Current and former CBS colleagues described Halderman as a smart, aggressive and fun-loving producer who was capable of great work but could also be difficult when he was unhappy or uninterested in an assignment. CBS said it suspended Halderman in the wake of the probe.

CBS would not address questions about whether Letterman faced any disciplinary actions for relationships with subordinates. CBS News also declined to address questions about whether Halderman's alleged actions call into question any of the work he has done for the news division.

Halderman's lawyer, Gerald Shargel, told reporters, "This story is far more complicated than what you heard."

Halderman earned about $214,000 in 2007. He was ordered in 2007 to pay his ex-wife $6,800 per month in child and spousal support until May 2011, when the payments will be reduced to $5,966 until May 2014, according to court papers.

Letterman's offstage life has been marked by a series of disturbing events.

A house painter who once worked for Letterman was arrested in 2005 for allegedly plotting to kidnap the host's then 16-month-old son, Harry, and a nanny and hold them for a $5 million ransom. The man was sentenced to prison.

Over several years, a woman was arrested repeatedly on trespassing and other charges for stalking Letterman and spent time in prison and a state mental hospital. She died in 1998.

Information from the Washington Post, New York Times and Associated Press was included in this report.

Letterman played his role in an elaborate sting 10/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 12:37am]
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