Crime

'I'm going to ruin your career.' Realtor rivalry unfolds at Miami extortion trial.

High-powered Miami Beach realtor testifies about alleged extortion attempt

Jill Hertzberg, half of the renowned real-estate duo known as "The Jills," testifies against Kevin Tomlinson, another Realtor accused of extorting the pair.
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Jill Hertzberg, half of the renowned real-estate duo known as "The Jills," testifies against Kevin Tomlinson, another Realtor accused of extorting the pair.

Jill Hertzberg, half of the high-powered luxury real-estate duo known as "The Jills," made her pitch Tuesday — only this time, she wasn't selling a South Beach mansion.

Instead, Hertzberg was addressing a Miami jury, recounting how a rival real-estate broker caught her company monkeying with computerized home listings then tried shaking her down for tens of thousands of dollars.

"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 in Miami's criminal court. "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."

Hertzberg was the first witness to testify against Kevin Tomlinson, 51, himself a high-end Realtor who specializes in luxury condos. His lawyers insist Tomlinson did nothing criminal but was simply negotiating a settlement to a potential class-action lawsuit against two famed South Florida real-estate queens who got their "hands caught in the cookie jar."

Tomlinson is charged with two counts of felony extortion in a case that has for years been the buzz of South Florida's cut-throat real-estate market. He's also charged with resisting arrest with violence and trying to deprive an officer of his weapon for allegedly trying to snatch a Miami Beach police officer's gun during his arrest.

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. The duo are media friendly, regularly appearing in business news publications, celebrity news columns and home TV reality shows.

Enter Tomlinson, who, while not as widely known as the Jills, has been a top broker in Miami Beach since the mid-1990s. Known for his blunt manner, Tomlinson was also a whiz with the online database known as the Multiple Listing Service (MLS), which can only be accessed by brokers and Realtors, and supplies data for web services such as Realtor.com.

In April 2015, he filed a complaint with the Miami Association of Realtors that the Jills had been manipulating the MLS data to hide 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.

Kevin Tomlinson
Real-estate agent Kevin Tomlinson, left, at the defendant's table with defense lawyer Richard Houlihan. He is accused of extorting rival Realtors on Miami Beach. David Ovalle Miami Herald

"A buyer coming in has no idea it's been languishing on the market for an extended time," defense lawyer John Bergendahl told jurors on Monday.

The Jills said clients were frustrated with incessant brokers offering to sell their properties. They asked an office associate to help, but insisted they didn't know that he was doing funny business with the listings themselves.

"The Jills made a mistake and didn't ask how he would do it," prosecutor T. Don TenBrook told jurors.

But then Tomlinson called Hertzberg as she was preparing to leave on a vacation to Wyoming, insisting he wasn't "a monster" and wanted to talk. A couple days later, they met at Hertzberg’s posh Miami Beach home and he strangely pulled up his shirt to proclaim he "was not wearing a wire."

"I was like, 'That's kind of weird.' We did this kind of friendly talk and then he said, 'I'm going to explain to you how this is going away.' He said, 'You're going to pay me money."

He demanded $250,000 from each Jill. He repeated his demands to Eber on a conference call, though he agreed to drop the total price to $400,000.

That day, July 17, 2015, the Jills called Miami Beach police. They began recording calls with him — which the jury heard on Tuesday.

A few weeks later, 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. Tomlinson — as police recorded — demanded double: $800,000, with the Jills splitting the cost.

Tomlinson, who had consulted with an attorney after his first phone call to Hertzberg, repeatedly described the payment as a legal settlement — and his defense at trial hinges on convincing jurors that the row is nothing more than a civil dispute.

The trial continues Wednesday before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Milton Hirsch.

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