By: David Bauder
NEW YORK (AP) – The hard-driving newsman accused of trying to blackmail David Letterman recently produced a piece on crime boss John Gotti and his family. Now he’s using one of Gotti’s former attorneys to defend himself.
Defense attorney Gerald Shargel spoke on morning news shows yesterday in defense of Robert J. “Joe” Halderman. The producer for CBS’ ’48 Hours Mystery’ was arrested last week on charges that he tried to extort $2 million from Letterman in return for keeping some of the comedian’s sexual affairs quiet.
The 51-year-old producer has been praised by colleagues for his news smarts. While some colleagues described him as a “swashbuckler” and prosecutors talked of money problems that may have driven him off the rails, the general sense from those who knew Halderman is shock at his arrest.
“I’m mystified,” said former CBS News anchor Dan Rather. “The Halderman I knew would have never been involved in this, but certainly wouldn’t have thought it would have been a success.”
Halderman was nominated for Emmy Awards for his work on pieces about Sarajevo and the bloody assault on a school in Russia. He has worked in CBS’ London bureau, where he was sent to war zones in Bosnia and Somalia. He worked for CNN in its infancy in the early 1980s, where he was struck by rubber bullets during a demonstration in Argentina.
One of his most recent pieces for ’48 Hours Mystery’ was an interview with John Gotti’s children – Angel, Victoria and Peter – about what they knew about the Mafia. Shargel represented the Gottis in court, and represented jailed New York attorney Marc Dreier, who talked about his $400 million financial fraud on CBS’ ’60 Minutes’ on Sunday.
Shargel, described in the New York Daily News as “famed for his merciless dissection of witnesses,” said that he’s looking forward to cross-examining Letterman.
The tough approach wouldn’t surprise many who worked with Halderman.
Colleagues noted his distress in recent months when his ex-wife and two children moved across the country and his girlfriend, Stephanie Birkitt, moved out of their Norwalk, Conn., home. Halderman was paying $6,800 a month in child support and had an application to reduce that turned down by a judge, according to divorce papers obtained by The Associated Press.
Halderman allegedly used diary entries by Birkitt – outlining her affair with Letterman – to extort money from the talk show star.
The pressure to maintain his lifestyle on a $214,000-a-year salary must have been intense, colleagues and prosecutors say.
Marcy McGinnis, Halderman’s former boss when he worked at CBS’ London bureau in the 1990s, said he was the type of producer people called on when they needed something done fast and well. A producer in television news is usually the quarterback for a story, doing reporting and arranging logistics, and working in tandem with the on-air correspondent.
“He always got the story and he could basically do any story you sent him on,” she said.
With CBS News officials circling the wagons and others not wanting to speak publicly because a criminal matter is involved, several of Halderman’s news colleagues said they would speak only on condition of anonymity.
Said one: “He was an aggressive news guy but he did everything properly. I think that’s why so many people are stunned.”
He typified foreign correspondents who tend to be brave and adventurous because they’re frequently sent into war zones, said another colleague.
“He was a colorful guy,” the second colleague said. “He wasn’t shy or retiring by any means. Characteristics like that tend to be fairly common in the news business, especially on the international scene.”
MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, who worked with Halderman in the early 1980s at CNN, wrote on his blog that “you know when somebody gets arrested for some horrific or moronic crime…you hear somebody say, `That’s not the guy I knew’? Not this time. This is exactly the guy we knew at CNN.”
Asked to elaborate, Olbermann said he recalled a man who thought he was better or smarter than those around him.
“There was no weeping when he left, I think for CBS,” Olbermann said. “I used to say he reminded me of John Belushi, only without the weight or the humor.”
One colleague who worked with Halderman overseas described him as the “fireman.”
“He would go to all the hot spots,” the person said. “He was well-liked, a funny guy with a big personality.”
AP Television Writer Frazier Moore and AP news researcher Rhonda Shafner contributed to this report.
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