Letterman’s Extortionist Tries A New Theory

I suppose you have to give Joe Halderman’s lawyer some credit for coming up with a creative defense. If you don’t think too hard about it, it almost makes sense. In a variation on the “everybody does it” ethical rationalization, Halderman’s bid to avoid prison for hitting up David Letterman for two million dollars in hush money (Halderman’s ex-fiancé was one of  the female employees Letterman used in workplace harem) is based on a “Tiger does it” theory. Or to be accurate, “Tiger’s girlfriend did it.”

“Evidence of celebrity misdeeds has a significant fair market value,” lawyer Gerald Shargel has written in court documents. “… Evidence of such misdeeds is routinely suppressed through private business arrangement.” Citing news reports that Woods paid one of his mistresses (at least one) millions to keep quiet about their sexual affair, Shargel queries whether what his client did in soliciting money from the comic was any different than what Tiger’s squeeze must have done.

Maybe not. Tiger Woods, however, didn’t call in the police, giving up his secrets so he wouldn’t be extorted with them. Boiled down to its greasy essence, Halderman’s argument is that it’s unfair for him to be punished because his extortion didn’t work, while Tiger’s mistress laughs all the way to the bank.

That’s assuming that it wasn’t Tiger Woods who offered the money first, and only Tiger and Secret Girlfriend # 213 (or whatever her number is)  know that. If Tiger originated the deal, that is not extortion, which involves a threat of harm being used by someone to coerce another into paying sums of money. There’s no such thing as “implied extortion.” Using cash to keep a person from coming forth with evidence of a crime may be illegal, and is definitely unethical, but Tiger wasn’t doing that. (Letterman might have been, if he had suggested the pay-off himself, because sexual harassment is illegal. Cheating on your spouse—David was doing that too, of course—is just wrong.)

The argument, then, doesn’t bear scrutiny, legal or otherwise. The ethics rules governing lawyers prohibit frivolous lawsuits and defenses: isn’t this one? It isn’t frivolous if the lawyer has a “good faith belief” that it could possibly prevail. If this argument prevailed, extortion would suddenly become legal, which would make life miserable and expensive for the Tiger Woods and the David Lettermans of the world, not to mention the Kennedys, Ensigns, Clintons, and lots of other people. In other words, “No way, Jose.” Halderman’s argument has exactly the same likelihood of success as an ice sculpture exhibit in Hell. Fortunately for lawyer Shargel, all the ethics rule requires is that he have a good faith belief that his argument might work, even though that faith may be based on faulty reasoning.

That’s right: Halderman’s lawyer is ethical if he’s an idiot.

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