A Miami jury convicted a South Beach real-estate broker of extorting his rivals: the high-profile sales duo known as "The Jills."
Jurors convicted Kevin Tomlinson after a weeklong trial that offered a window into the intense rivalries in the cutthroat world of South Florida luxury real estate — and led to scrutiny on the business practices of two of Miami's most recognized Realtors.
Tomlinson showed no emotion when the verdict was read. Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch ordered him jailed before sentencing, which won't take place until at least August.
He faces up to 30 years in prison for the two felony convictions, although he will likely receive much less because he is a first-time convict.
Tomlinson was accused of illegally demanding $800,000 from Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber, the pair known for finding and selling homes to wealthy clients in South Florida. The two are media regulars, appearing in business news publications, celebrity news columns and home TV reality shows.
But their successes have long stoked suspicions among other brokers. That group included Tomlinson, himself a successful South Beach broker specializing in luxury condos.
Tomlinson discovered that the Jills had been manipulating home data on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which can only be accessed by brokers and Realtors, and supplies data for real-estate websites.
In April 2015, he filed a complaint with the Miami Association of Realtors that detailed that the Jills had been hiding properties that had been on the market for longer than six months. That made it seem as if the Jills' track record was better than it actually was, and prevented other brokers from offering their services to clients whose listings were expiring on the database.
At trial, both Jills took the witness stand and acknowledged they did wrong but minimized their roles.
Both testified that they asked an office associate for help because their clients with unsold homes were incensed by barrages of phone calls from rival brokers looking to get in on the listings. The Jills swore they didn't know that their associate, Juan Carlos Otoya, changed data on at least 51 properties, making them seem as if the homes were actually in other neighborhoods — in essence hiding them from other brokers.
"This is not a trial to determine whether Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber violated the MLS rules. They did. But you know something, saints don't get extorted," prosecutor T. Don TenBrook told jurors during closing arguments.
But defense lawyer John Bergendahl said the case was all about "the Jills' unauthorized actions to go ahead and intentionally corrupt the database of the Multiple Listings Service."
"Kevin is the whistleblower," said Bergendahl, who stressed that Tomlinson was only trying to negotiate a potential settlement for a looming lawsuit from a group of disgruntled brokers. "Classic resolution of a lawsuit before it's filed. Nothing more, nothing less."
Tomlinson, a quirky and outspoken figure on Miami Beach, long swore he committed no crime and only wanted to expose The Jills' shady business practices. Two of his allies, big-name brokers Beth Butler and Esther Percal, took the stand in his defense, ripping the Jills for their handling of listings.
During the middle of the trial, Tomlinson even tweeted at a Miami Herald reporter to complain about coverage, saying the newspaper missed when Hertzberg "got roasted" on cross-examination. "Your reporting was trash and skewed," Tomlinson wrote in his tweet.
The jury, however, believed The Jills.
At trial, jurors heard that after Tomlinson filed the complaint, he visited Hertzberg at her Miami Beach home, and demanded $250,000 from each of the Jills.
"He goes, 'Listen, sister, you're going to pay me money because if you don't, I'm going to ruin your career,' " Hertzberg told jurors on Tuesday. "He said, 'You better listen. You better listen real well because I'm going to go and ruin your whole reputation. I'm going to call the Wall Street Journal and tell them all about this.' "
The Jills later turned to Miami Beach police detectives, who secretly recorded a series of phone calls and meeting in which Tomlinson upped the asking price: $400,000 from each of the brokers.
"I was stunned," Eber testified about when Tomlinson first demanded money from her. "I never expected he was going to be demanding money from us. And then Kevin said, 'I'm not going to negotiate this like a house sale.' "