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Letterman Extortion: Producer Busted; What is Extortion?

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By Caleb Groos on October 02, 2009 1:15 PM

The Manhattan District Attorney's office has indicted Robert Joel Halderman for attempted grand larceny over the David Letterman blackmail plot. So what exactly is larceny, when is it "grand," and what constitutes extortion?

The alleged blackmail attempt and Letterman's comments about it to his studio audience yesterday have been widely reported. Someone tried to blackmail him for $2 million using the threat of exposing Letterman's dalliances with staff members.

That someone was allegedly Robert Joel Halderman, who has long worked as a CBS news producer, most recently on 48 Hours Mystery. Halderman was indicted today on one count of first degree attempted grand larceny, which carries a possible sentence of 15 years. He pleaded not guilty.

Larceny is the wrongful taking of someone else's property. It can take many forms. Under New York law, larceny includes taking someone's property:

  • by writing bad checks;
  • through trick, embezzlement or use of false pretenses;
  • by taking control of "lost" property you know to belong to someone else;
  • in exchange for false promises; or
  • (most importantly here) through extortion.

In New York, larcey becomes grand larceny if the property taken or demanded is worth more than $1,000, is amongst certain special types of property, or is taken in certain ways (including extortion).

So what exactly constitutes extortion?

Extortion, under New York law, is compelling someone to give you their property by instilling fear in them that you will:

  • (most importantly here) "expose a secret or publicize an asserted fact, whether true or false, tending to subject some person to hatred, contempt or ridicule;"
  • cause physical injury to someone;
  • cause damage to property;
  • engage in criminal conduct;
  • accuse someone of a crime or cause charges to be brought against them;
  • cause a strike, boycott, or other collective labor group action harmful to someone's business, unless the property is demanded or received for the benefit of the group;
  • testify, provide information or withhold information regarding someone's legal claim;
  • use or abuse your position as a public official; or
  • perform any other act not for you own benefit, but rather "calculated to harm another person materially with respect to his health, safety, business, calling, career, financial condition, reputation or personal relationships."

Because Halderman's alleged extortion demand sought $2 million, he was indicted for attempted first degree grand larceny.