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David Letterman, Sex in the Office, and Extortion
Office Affairs and Extortion Meet Late-Night Television
October 1, 2009
David Letterman revealed on his show last night that he was the victim of extortion. A producer writing a screenplay allegedly had some dirt on Letterman and threatened to include the embarrassing information in his screenplay unless Letterman gave him hush money. Letterman went on to reveal that he had, in fact, had sex with employees but did not discuss details other than to say that the sexual escapades occurred before he got married to his wife. Letterman's late-night talk show (The Late Show with David Letterman) is filmed at the Ed Sullivan Theater and is broadcast on CBS.
The crime of extortion is what people usually call blackmail. It is a threat to do something to humiliate or even testify or press charges against someone unless the person being threatened turns over money or property to the threatening party. Indeed, this seems like a fairly clear-cut case of extortion, and Letterman testified to the grand jury, which resulted in the indictment and arrest of the producer. Of course, the accused is entitled to a defense and the presumption of innocence.
But let's talk about Letterman's past sexual escapades with employees. Of course, there is nothing wrong per se with "hooking up" with people at the office. This is commonplace and even one of the most common ways that future spouses meet each other. No law does or should exist to prevent such social activity from generating in the workplace.
However, there are sexual harassment laws that employers and superiors must be aware of that can lead to serious problems. David Letterman is reported to make around a staggering $30 million per year, and this makes him a prime target for a potential case of sexual harassment. Now, to be honest, any claims of sexual harassment at this point may suffer from credibility (as a real victim should have filed such a claim a long time ago), but people are speculating about such a possibility. As of yet, there is no such reported case against David Letterman.
Nonetheless, it is simply not advisable for a man such as David Letterman to engage in casual sex with a staffer. The risk is too high that a subordinate will be tempted to engage in this for something like a raise or promotion and then make a claim if the hoped-for benefit does not come to pass. And this is true even if someone like Letterman makes no such promises.
Worse yet, when rumors start floating around that a guy like Letterman is engaging in sexual affairs in the office, that makes it much easier for someone to file a false claim of sexual harassment. The "implied" threat that dirt will be revealed through discovery or a trial may force a settlement even if the claimant is lying about the alleged sexual harassment. And the fact that a boss has engaged in sexual activity with a subordinate may lend credibility to a false claim.
Of course, Letterman is, in fact, a victim if the charges are proven. But we should also not ignore the fact that his sexual escapades allowed this producer leverage to concoct his alleged extortion scheme. The point is that people in charge are potential targets of such threats and should conduct themselves accordingly.
None of this means that a boss somewhere up the chain should not have a serious dating relationship with a subordinate. This is fine, but random, casual "hook ups" should be avoided. This is the main point that we can glean from this incident. Power and influence flow naturally from being in a superior position in the workplace, and those individuals in such a position should consider all the potential consequences when socializing with their subordinates.
Update: In the YouTube video posted below, David Letterman apologizes to his staff after they were hounded by the press once details of the sex scandal and extortion were made public. Oddly enough, if you listen closely, he did not apologize to his wife. He simply said she was very troubled over this and that he had a lot of work to do to make it up to her. I guess that was his form of apology.
I don't suspect we'll be hearing much more about this except when the accused, Robert J. Halderman, either pleads guilty (likely in this case because the evidence is substantial and credible) or goes to trial on his extortion charges.