A jury should get to decide whether a TV producer's dealings with David Letterman were attempted blackmail or just hard-nosed business, a judge ruled yesterday.

In refusing to throw out an attempted grand larceny charge against producer Robert "Joe" Halderman, the judge put the case on a path toward trial, which could bring testimony from the "Late Show" host about events in his private life that have been pushed into public view, The Associated Press reports.

The case spurred Letterman to tell viewers in October that he had slept with women on his staff.

Prosecutors say Halderman demanded $2 million to keep quiet about the talk-show host's affairs. Halderman says he was just offering Letterman a chance to buy - and keep private - a thinly veiled screenplay about Letterman's life.

Whether Halderman's conduct amounted to commerce or crime "is a classic example of an issue that is best left for a trial jury to decide," Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice Charles Solomon wrote.

Halderman, 52, a producer for CBS' "48 Hours Mystery," could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted. A trial date could be set at his next court appearance on March 9.

Defense lawyer Gerald Shargel said he was "perfectly willing to put it in front of a trial jury." A Letterman lawyer has said the comedian would willingly testify.

Prosecutors say the financially strapped Halderman threatened to ruin Letterman's reputation with information he had gleaned from his then-girlfriend's diary. It described her relationship with Letterman, her boss, authorities said.

Letterman's lawyer Daniel J. Horwitz said yesterday's ruling "strongly indicates that the focus of this case will be the facts of what Mr. Halderman did and what he said - facts that amount to classic extortion."

Halderman also said the criminal charge violated his free-speech rights to write a movie or book about Letterman. The judge rebuffed that argument, saying the producer "is not being prosecuted for authoring either a book or screenplay."

CBS yesterday declined to discuss Halderman's status at the network, where he has worked for more than 27 years.

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