Former South Beach real estate agent Kevin Tomlinson was sentenced on Friday to an extended period of probation and was banned from the industry for extorting a top-producing broker duo, threatening to expose them for manipulation of home sales data unless they paid up.
Tomlinson, who faced up to 30 years in prison, was convicted by a jury in June on two counts of extortion for his demand that Jill Eber and Jill Hertzberg — Coldwell Banker agents known as “the Jills” — pay $800,000 in exchange for his silence.
Judge Milton Hirsch of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Court sentenced Tomlinson to two years of probation in which he must wear an ankle monitor and another 15 years of probation.
Before he was sentenced, Tomlinson addressed the court. “I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the court and to everyone involved, the Jills. I’m ready to go to the next step and take whatever comes and do that.”
But Hertzberg and Eber did not believe he had shown contrition.
“He has shown no remorse and has not accepted any responsibility of any kind,” Hertzberg said during her statement to the judge before sentencing. “This has been the most traumatic experience of my life both personally and professionally.”
Eber said she “so wanted to close this chapter in her life,” adding that Tomlinson “actually made extorting the Jills his business plan.”
In April 2015, after four months of digging through the Jills team’s listings, Tomlinson filed a complaint with the Miami Association of Realtors detailing 51 listings that the Jills manipulated a total of 552 times between 2011 and 2015. Tomlinson said the combined values of those properties totaled more than $372 million, and that the Jills erased nearly 23,740 days on market from those listings.
But after Tomlinson confronted the Jills, they went to the police and eventually recorded conversations with Tomlinson in which he demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep quiet.
“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,” he said in the recordings.
In August 2015, he was charged with two felony counts of extortion, resisting arrest and depriving an officer of means of protection. He pleaded not guilty. He was convicted following a weeklong trial in June. Tomlinson intends to appeal the verdict, and said he wants to file a lawsuit against the Miami Association of Realtors.
The properties in question were owned or sold to celebrities like Tommy Hilfiger, Claudia Potamkin (the ex-wife of auto magnate Alan Potamkin), Christina Getty (a granddaughter of Getty Oil founder J. Paul Getty) Fred Hochberg, a businessman and member of President Obama’s administration, and Chicken Kitchen founder Christian de Berdouare — to name a few.
During Tomlinson’s trial, Eber testified that she and Hertzberg took full responsibility for what their employee, Juan Carlos Otoya, was doing with the properties — but that they weren’t aware of it at the time. Both Eber and Hertzberg said they themselves have not used the MLS in at least 20 years.
“We didn’t think it was wrong. We should have known what was going on,” Eber testified in June.
Beth Butler, managing broker of Compass Florida, is a friend of Tomlinson. She told The Real Deal that in recent past, a broker could “enter a listing, put the folio number and everything else would auto-populate.” At some point, she said, “the board or the MLS committee decided to unlock that,” which led to the manipulation.
In an interview with TRD last month, Tomlinson said the Miami Association of Realtors has ignored his requests to find out who gave the Jills a higher-level broker code that was able to make those manipulations.
Teresa King Kinney, CEO of the Miami Association Realtors said: “the National Association of Realtors has very strict guidelines as to how ethics complaints are handled.
Kinney said that complaint process is confidential. “If it is in process and any part of the case ends up in court, the case is frozen,” meaning the association could in theory take up Tomlinson’s complaint after sentencing.
According to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, no complaints have been filed against Eber or Hertzberg. The state Attorney General’s Office also said it is not investigating the Jills and said no complaints were filed regarding the Jills, except for the case against Tomlinson.
Otoya, in a November 2017 deposition, admitted to changing the fields but said after the complaint was filed, he received his own MLS code that gives him restricted access.
Butler and others claimed it is now common practice to manipulate listings. “Five years ago, you could at least know the data was accurate. When they unlocked those fields, that’s when they allowed this craziness to happen,” she said.
In New York, it has become increasingly common for agents to change apartment numbers to make a listing that has languished on the market appear new.
In March 2016, the Miami Association of Realtors implemented a new fine structure for agents manipulating the MLS. For every manipulation, members are now required to pay $5,000 per violation. But brokers say the fines haven’t had an effect — either because the infractions are not being reported or the board is slow to respond.
Keith Larsen contributed reporting.