Criminal Law

Blackmail Costs More Than it Pays


On March 9, 2010, Robert "Joe" Halderman, a former TV producer CBS agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges stemming from his involvement in a scheme to blackmail David Letterman. Specifically, he's pleading guilty to attempted grand larceny.

Back in October 2009, he pleaded not guilty and denied involvement in the scheme. At that time he faced 15 years in prison if convicted. In exchange for his guilty plea, however, Halderman's sentence is six months in jail, four and one-half years' probation, and 1,000 hours of community service.

Original Article

You don't have to be a criminal law expert or a lawyer to understand that crimes are often committed for one of two reasons: Money, or revenge, or both. The recent events involving David Letterman, the long-time popular host of the Late Show television program is a perfect example.

The Plot

Letterman shocked his audience the other night when he explained that a television executive threatened to go public with information about Letterman's sexual relationship with a certain woman, unless Letterman paid him $2 million. Letterman explained that at the time of the affair, the woman, Stephanie Birkitt, was a staff worker for Letterman's television show. Since then, Letterman has admitted to having relationships with other female staffers over the many years he's been in television.

The plot fell apart largely because of Letterman's lawyer. Letterman contacted him immediately and he "negotiated" with the executive, Robert "Joe" Halderman. Letterman's lawyer (whose name hasn't been released) recorded his conversations with Halderman. According to court papers, Halderman made explicit and actual threats against Letterman. The lawyer gave Halderman a check for $2 million. He was arrested two days later when he tried to cash it. It was after the arrest that Letterman "came clean" during his nightly television show.

What's the Crime?

Generally, blackmail is when someone threatens to "go public" with damaging information unless the victim gives the blackmailer something, usually money. Under laws of some states, including New York, blackmail goes by the name "extortion." In other states, however, extortion is different from blackmail. In these states, extortion is when someone forces another person to do something or give up something value by threatening that person with physical injury or death.

Letterman's case is the classic example of blackmail. Halderman threatened to go public with information that he thought would be damaging to Letterman's career or to his marriage, unless he was paid. There are reports that Halderman is in dire financial straits, so it's easy to see why he tried to blackmail Letterman. Money wasn't the only motivation, though. It seems that Halderman wanted revenge. Up until recently, Birkitt, the woman in the affair Halderman threatened to disclose, was living with Halderman and was involved with him romantically.

Don't Do It, and Don't Give In

Blackmail usually costs more than it pays. For the blackmailer, there's no guarantee of getting paid. And, as the Letterman case shows, a criminal trial and jail time is almost certainly guaranteed. Not to mention the loss of dignity, the respect of friends and family, and your job. In most cases, it's not going to be an easy pay day, and the whole plot backfires.

For the victim, it's best not to give in to the blackmailer and come clean. If you pay up, there's no guarantee that the blackmailer still won't go public with the damaging information, and it's likely he'll come back again and again asking for more and more money. Like Letterman did, refuse to pay off the blackmailer and then go public with the information yourself.

Questions For Your Attorney

  • Does it make a difference if the person only threatens to disclose information about me, or is it a crime only if I actually pay him?
  • Does it matter how much money is demanded? Is it still blackmail if someone threatens to tell my wife about my extra-marital affair unless I pay him $100?
  • If someone blackmails me, am I guilty of blackmail if I threaten to go public with damaging information about him?

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