Miami Beach

Secret tapes, blackmail threat: Luxe real-estate rivalry turns nasty in Miami

Realtors Jill Hertzberg, left, and Jill Eber, right, sold this home in Indian Creek for $47 million in 2012. Until last month, it was the most expensive home ever sold in South Florida.
Realtors Jill Hertzberg, left, and Jill Eber, right, sold this home in Indian Creek for $47 million in 2012. Until last month, it was the most expensive home ever sold in South Florida. Miami Herald Staff

In the cut-throat world of South Florida luxury real estate, the glamorous Miami Beach duo known as The Jills has long reigned supreme — provoking plenty of professional jealousy along the way.

Still, Jill Hertzberg and Jill Eber were caught off guard when a fellow Realtor named Kevin Tomlinson, then of ONE Sotheby’s International Realty, lodged a complaint accusing the two of manipulating real-estate listings to gain an edge over competitors.

Then he really raised the stakes. Tomlinson, according to Miami-Dade prosecutors, tried to shake the Jills down for $800,000. In newly released audio files of conversations secretly recorded by Miami Beach police, Tomlinson suggested he would go public with the claims, ruining their careers unless they coughed up the money.

“I’m not saying you’re guilty. I have to clear my conscience and sort of do the right thing,” Tomlinson told the Jills in one conversation. “I’d rather this be a blip on your career that no one needs to know about ... I don’t want anything to get to the Wall Street Journal.”

The recordings are key evidence in a messy extortion case filed against Tomlinson that has scandalized an image-conscious industry. A police investigation culminated in August with Tomlinson holed up inside his South Beach penthouse as officers banged on the door.

I’d rather this be a blip on your career that no one needs to know about.

Kevin Tomlinson

“F**k Jill! F**k the Hertzbergs!” Tomlinson hollered, according to a police report, shortly before trying to grab an officer’s gun.

Tomlinson, 48, is now awaiting trial on charges of felony extortion, resisting arrest with violence and attempting to deprive an officer of his weapon. He has pleaded not guilty.

His lawyer insists that the Jills orchestrated the arrest simply to discredit Tomlinson, who uncovered a “pattern and practice of wrongdoing that stretched over four years.”

“As this case unwinds, you’ll see that this was anything but an extortion,” said lawyer John Bergendahl. “At every turn, Kevin tried to have attorneys involved, and the Jills are the ones who didn’t want to have attorneys involved.”

Realtors have whispered for years that the Jills’ immaculate public image belied what many considered questionable business practices. Competitors suspected them of one tactic in particular: making home listings disappear from an online real estate database closely monitored by other brokers. But until Tomlinson came along, no one ever offered hard evidence that the Jills might be breaking the rules.

The tawdry affair has divided South Florida’s real-estate community, particularly in the niche luxury market, where one lucrative sale can elevate a broker to stardom and wealth. Many have rushed to support Tomlinson. Even after he was arrested and fired from his job at One Sotheby’s, he was soon hired by a boutique firm called Calibre International Realty.

In the wake of the arrest, competitors have circulated a petition calling for the Miami Association of Realtors to take “disciplinary action of the highest severity” against the Jills, who work with real-estate firm Coldwell Banker. More than 50 Realtors have signed the document.

Multiple Listing Service: an online database of real estate listings closely monitored by brokers and agents.

The Jills have long enjoyed a reputation as international luxury “super-brokers,” finding and selling homes for South Florida’s elite, with clients ranging from pop stars Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan to uber-rich business moguls. Last year, they sold $515 million worth of real estate, the third-most by a team nationwide.

A spokesman for the Jills said the pair had not seen the petition calling for their punishment.

“It does not surprise them that jealous competitors would seek to take advantage of the situation for their own personal gain,” spokesman Bruce Rubin said.

The Jills’ media presence is a well-oiled machine, with the duo appearing regularly in business news publications, celebrity news columns and home TV reality shows. In a statement, their spokesman defended their reputation: “Jill Eber and Jill Hertzberg are hardworking Realtors who have never before had a disciplinary violation or action. They have both made significant contributions to their industry and local communities and have spent their careers championing an industry they love and in which they take pride.”

Enter Tomlinson, who while not as widely known as the Jills, had been a top broker in Miami Beach since the mid-1990s, once serving as a member of the board of governors for the Miami Association of Realtors.

He was also known for being outspoken. One luxury real estate agent who worked with Tomlinson said he “was not that surprised” to hear of the arrest.

“Kevin knows the market in-and-out but he’s always been a loose cannon,’’ said the agent, who asked not to be named. “He’s a prima donna.”

Tomlinson refused to comment for this story, although he said he would if the Miami Herald agreed to not publish his jail mugshot, which features the Realtor bruised on his cheek from his encounter with police. He has not shied away from discussing the case on his public Facebook page, suggesting the Jills were guilty of “greed and arrogance ... and entitlement.” He posted his own mugshot on the social media site.

“I have to show that I am not embarrassed by what I am going thru. This was a bastardization of our legal system,” Tomlinson explained in a post, adding: “Oh ... I have cojones ... big ones. You have to — to survive in Miami.”

Tomlinson launched his shot against the Jills in April with a complaint to the Miami Association of Realtors. The complaint also named Hertzberg’s son and daughter and Eber’s sister, who all work in the Jills’ South Beach office.

As well as being outspoken, Tomlinson had earned a reputation as a whiz with an online database known as the Multiple Listing Service, which can only be accessed by brokers and Realtors, and supplies the data for web services such as Realtor.com.

He alleged that when the Jills couldn’t sell a home, they would sometimes hide it from other users of the MLS. That could mean, for example, changing the address of a mansion on North Bay Road so that it would appear to be located in Allapattah, where few high-end brokers would think to look.

51Number of luxury home listings Tomlinson said the Jills hid from other Realtors

To the untrained eye, it looked as if the Jills were better at selling homes than their actual record suggested. And even more important: the scheme prevented other brokers from offering their services to clients whose listing were expiring on the database. Realtors only have exclusive rights to sell a home for as long as their contract with the owner lasts. Once the listing expires, the home is fair game for competitors.

In his complaint to the board, Tomlinson cited 51 instances where the Jills had hidden homes.

Esther Percal, a top broker at EWM Realty International with nearly four decades of experience, blasted the Jills’ conduct.

“The Jills broke the rules. They have a near monopoly on the top of the market because they’ve branded themselves so well,” Percal said. “They say they’re the best and they can bring the best prices, but they don’t have a magic wand. Their listings can expire like everybody else.”

In a response to Tomlinson’s complaint — now evidence in the criminal case — the duo admitted using “poor judgment,” but said they never realized “the consequences” of the data jiggering. And they denied their conduct actually broke Realtor association rules.

About five years ago, the Jills explained, they got a call from an “irate client” whose property had not sold. The client had gotten “a barrage of unsolicited calls” from other Realtors looking to snag business as his listing had just expired.

The Jills said that a staffer — unnamed in the document — overheard the call and “indicated that, in the future, a client’s property could be kept off a list known as the ‘Hot Sheet,’ ” which Realtors scoured for new business. From then on, the Jills acknowledged, they would “from time to time” keep other unsold properties off the collection of the expired listings, according to the response.

They did not expect to be the victims of an extortion attempt.

Bruce Rubin, Jills’ spokesman

“When this issue first came to their attention, The Jills responded to the [association] fully and candidly,” said Rubin, the Jills’ spokesman. “They followed proper procedure as outlined by the Association. They did not expect to be the victims of an extortion attempt. It was, and remains, a shocking and horrible experience.”

Bergendahl, Tomlinson’s lawyer, said it was incomprehensible that the Jills didn’t understand the consequences of the data manipulation: “How can two people with a combined 50 years of experience not understand the magnitude of their actions?”

Tomlinson thought his database digging would topple South Florida’s most powerful Realtors from their lofty perch. But Miami Beach police say what he did next went too far.

On July 14, Tomlinson surprised Hertzberg with a phone call to say he could withdraw the complaint. “He told me he ‘was a friend, not a monster,’ ” she wrote in her statement to Miami Beach police.

Two days later, they met at Hertzberg’s posh Miami Beach home, where a film crew was wrapping up a project. They talked privately.

“Once we sat down he pulled up his shirt and said, ‘I am not wearing a wire,’” Hertzberg wrote. “I had no idea what he talking about and thought he was acting in a very strange manner.”

He finally spit it out: he’d drop the complaint, if the Jills paid him $500,000. If not, he would filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation to “make sure my license was revoked,” she recalled.

He also said that he had discussed “destroying the Jills” with three other heavy hitters in South Florida’s real-estate market, Hertzberg told police.

They were: Ron Shuffield, the CEO of EWM, Mayi de la Vega, the CEO of ONE Sotheby’s, and Jeri Jenkins, a well-known Coldwell Banker real-estate agent.

All three vehemently denied being involved in any conspiracy against the Jills. “I have no interest in destroying anybody, that’s all I can say,” Jenkins said. “I don’t operate that way.”

Shuffield said that Tomlinson, who worked at EWM for more than a decade, called him twice to discuss the Jills’ alleged rule breaking.

“I told him there were proper channels and he needed to go to the Realtor’s association,” Shuffield said.

I told him there were proper channels and he needed to go to the Realtor's association.

Ron Shuffield, CEO of EWM

De la Vega declined to talk to a reporter, instead sending a statement through a spokeswoman that said One Sotheby’s was cooperating with police.

During his first meetings with Hertzberg, Tomlinson also claimed that Teresa Kinney, the CEO of the Miami Association of Realtors, had suggested he should “work this out” with the Jills to make the matter go away.

“[Kinney] wants this to go away because you’re her top producers and she doesn’t want this to blow up in your face or her face,” Tomlinson said on the tape. “It doesn’t look good for her that her data was so easily screwed with and it doesn’t look good for her that her [top] producers are in this scuffle.”

Kinney denied ever speaking to him.

Whether Tomlinson was simply name dropping for leverage, he repeated his demands to Eber on a conference call, though he agreed to drop the price to $400,000. He followed up with an “angry email” the next day, Hertzberg said.

That day, July 17, the Jills called Miami Beach police.

Detective Wayne Holbrook was assigned the case. Before long, the Jills were covertly recording their phone calls with Tomlinson. Rambling and cryptic in the calls, Tomlinson repeatedly implored them to “settle,” going back and forth on whether to do it through “rabid dog” attorneys, while repeatedly calling the women “girl,” “honey” and “sister.”

He couched his efforts as way to help the Jills, calling himself a “mole in my own camp” — apparently referencing other Realtors who “are jealous of you.”

“I’m the one that’s sticking up for you,” Tomlinson said, before offering his own spin on a quote he attributed to actress Elizabeth Taylor: “Don’t give the trolls the time of day because like, don’t even speak about them because they just waste your life.”

Finally, on Aug. 6, Tomlinson met with Hertzberg at her home for the exchange of money. Hertzberg, in a ploy approved by police, held in her hands a check for $400,000. But suddenly Tomlinson — as police recorded — demanded double: $800,000, with the Jills splitting the cost.

$800,000Amount allegedly demanded by Tomlinson to withdraw his complaint

Tomlinson claimed his lawyers were now pushing a federal “class-action” lawsuit. “It would become public. ... It would ruin you,” he said on the audio. He repeatedly described the payment as a legal settlement involving his attorney. But he had never filed a lawsuit against the Jills.

The duo stalled. One day later, according to police, Tomlinson told Hertzberg in a text that it was “too late.”

That day, Miami Beach police called prosecutor Manny Reboso, who helped draft an arrest warrant, which by day’s end was signed by a judge.

That night, Holbrook and several others officers knocked on the door of the penthouse at Meridian Lofts in South Beach. Tomlinson refused to open, cursing at them through the door, before they got a building manager to open the unit.

In the tussle, according to a Miami Beach police report, Tomlinson “kicked and held his arms clinched tightly underneath his body” as officers tried to cuff him. One arm broke free and grabbed the handle of an officer’s sidearm, according to an incident report, before police restrained him using “strikes and holds.”

On his Facebook page, Tomlinson recounted the encounter, saying he never assaulted the officers: “They actually stepped on the other side of my face pushing my [bruised] side into my limestone floor.”

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas

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