Letterman extortion case raises questions for CBS: NYT

Last Updated: Saturday, October 3, 2009 - 08:42

New York: David Letterman, who built his career skewering philandering politicians and show business “weasels” and “boneheads,” finds himself in the middle of his own celebrity scandal, after he admitted having multiple affairs with employees of his production company, Worldwide Pants.
For the intensely private Mr. Letterman, the revelations, which resulted from a bizarre extortion attempt, are sure to be extremely embarrassing, especially as he tries to extend his lead in the late-night contest. ”I have had sex with women who work for me on this show,” he told his audience on Thursday night, calling himself “creepy.” He added that he hoped “to protect my job.”

More seriously, they raised questions for both his company and CBS about whether his actions constituted sexual harassment or at least abuse of a power relationship over employees.

A central figure in the case — one of the women who did have a sexual relationship with Mr. Letterman, according to representatives of the show — is Mr. Letterman’s longtime personal assistant, Stephanie Birkitt, who also often appeared on the air. The sexual relationships had ended before Mr. Letterman was married in March, a Worldwide Pants executive said.

For CBS, the episode is doubly embarrassing. The network has been put in a precarious position of trying to steer clear of fallout from some highly questionable activities engaged in by its biggest star, who is experiencing his biggest surge in popularity (and ratings) in years.

At the same time, the accused perpetrator, Robert Joel Halderman, known as Joe, who until last month shared a residence in Connecticut with Ms. Birkitt, is a longtime and well-respected producer for the CBS News program “48 Hours Mystery.”

Mr. Halderman, 51, pleaded not guilty to one count of attempted larceny, after he reportedly threatened to expose Mr. Letterman. According to prosecutors, Mr. Halderman gave Mr. Letterman, 62, a one-page screenplay treatment depicting the talk-show host as a great success whose “world is about to collapse around him” with revelations of his trysts. Mr. Halderman also handed over photographs, correspondence and a page of the personal diary of Ms. Birkitt.

Even by the frenzied standards of today’s tabloid media, the scandal has moved remarkably quickly. On Thursday, Mr. Halderman deposited Mr. Letterman’s check for $2 million (so he thought — it was a fake), then went to work at CBS News on the far West Side of Manhattan, where he sat in a story meeting before being met by arresting officers outside.

CBS executives, including Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS Corporation, knew nothing about the attempted plot and it was only several hours before the taping of his Thursday show in which Mr. Letterman would address the matter. Inside CBS’s headquarters, where employees can usually watch the Letterman show live on closed circuit, the extortion segment was not transmitted.

In private, CBS executives have told the Worldwide Pants executives that they continue to be supportive of Mr. Letterman. But they have included a note of caution in their supportive position, saying that would change only if information of a more damning nature were to emerge.

According to one person inside the company, CBS executives did quietly seek and receive assurances that none of the women Mr. Letterman was talking about were under age and that no woman who was involved with him had felt threatened about her job.

Many who commented on the case requested anonymity either because of the continuing legal action or because of the private nature of Mr. Letterman’s admissions.

Mr. Halderman and Ms. Birkitt did not respond to telephone messages left at their residences.

According to the indictment, Mr. Halderman waited outside Mr. Letterman’s Manhattan home before sunrise on Sept. 9, then gave Mr. Letterman’s limousine driver a one-page draft of a proposed screenplay about the talk show host’s love life.



First Published: Saturday, October 3, 2009 - 08:42

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