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Jill Kelley, key figure in David Petraeus scandal, led lavish life

The Tampa, Fla., socialite cultivated ties with military leaders and obtained honorary titles. She also has had financial troubles.

November 14, 2012|By Shashank Bengali, David S. Cloud and Joseph Tanfani, Washington Bureau
  • Jill Kelley's license plate carries an emblem that reads “Honorary Consul.” Gen. David H. Petraeus helped her obtain that title from South Korea.
Jill Kelley's license plate carries an emblem that reads “Honorary… (Chris O'Meara, Associated…)

TAMPA, Fla. — When Jill Kelley believed a reporter was trespassing at her white-columned mansion in a wealthy neighborhood this week, the Tampa socialite called 911 and claimed diplomatic immunity.

"I'm an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability," an exasperated Kelley told the dispatcher in recordings released by police. "I don't know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well."

Kelley isn't a diplomat; she holds the ceremonial title of "honorary consul" for South Korea, one of many informal ties to prestige and power that the energetic 37-year-old mother of three has brandished to climb to the top rungs of the social ladder in this conservative military community.

Kelley, the wife of a cancer surgeon, has a thin resume, a troubled family, shaky finances and a reputation for being, as one acquaintance here put it, "Tampa Kardashian." Now she is central to an unfolding scandal that has forced out David H. Petraeus as CIA director, threatens the career of Marine Gen. John Allen, commander of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, and cast previously unknown figures and a sex affair into international notoriety.

Kelley's complaint to the FBI last summer that she was being harassed by email triggered the investigation that uncovered Petraeus' extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, author of those emails. The inquiry also uncovered what the Pentagon has called 20,000 to 30,000 pages of possibly "inappropriate communication" between Kelley and Allen, whose nomination to a prestigious assignment overseeing all NATO military has been put on hold.

Allen "intends to fully cooperate with the inspector general investigators and directed his staff to do the same," his lawyer, Col. John Baker, the chief defense counsel of the Marine Corps, said in a statement Wednesday. "To the extent there are questions about certain communications by Gen. Allen, he shares in the desire to resolve those questions as completely and quickly as possible."

The Army suspended Broadwell's security clearance, which gave her access to classified information. She is a lieutenant colonel and intelligence officer in the Army Reserve.

President Obama said at a White House news conference that he had seen "no evidence at this point" that classified information had been compromised, but noted that the FBI investigation was continuing. He praised Petraeus, who resigned Friday, for his "extraordinary career" in the military and CIA. "We are safer because of the work Dave Petraeus has done," he said.

From 2008 to 2010, Petraeus headed Central Command, which runs U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The command is based at MacDill Air Force Base, on a spit of land that juts into Tampa Bay. The base also is home to U.S. Special Operations Command and hosts representatives from 60 nations that joined together to fight terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001.

Balmy weather, a sparkling bay and a military-friendly population have made Tampa a welcome posting for officers and a favorite spot for retirees like Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The late New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had a booth at the Palm steakhouse, where his caricature adorns the wall — along with those of two other regulars, Scott and Jill Kelley.

Life here was a step up for Jill Kelley. Born in Beirut, she moved in the mid-1970s with her family to northeast Philadelphia, where they were the "oddballs" in a mostly Irish and German neighborhood, said Kelley's brother, David Khawam. The family opened restaurants in the area, he told reporters.

Scott and Jill Kelley moved to Tampa about a decade ago when Scott, who specializes in surgery for esophageal cancer, was hired by a local hospital. In June 2004, they purchased a 5,500-square-foot red-brick home on Bayshore Boulevard in the city's ritziest neighborhood.

With her dark tresses, high-wattage smile and gregarious personality, Kelley was a natural hostess. She became known for holding Champagne-and-caviar parties on a manicured front lawn, complete with billowing white tents and valet parking. Civic leaders rubbed shoulders with military brass from MacDill, a base so crucial to the local economy that generals were treated like rock stars.

In some cases, they acted that way too.

In February 2010, Petraeus and his wife, Holly, attended their first Gasparilla Pirate Festival, a local version of Mardi Gras. He arrived at the Kelley home with a 28-motorcycle police escort and wore a long string of beads around his neck.

"They became close friends with the general," said former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who was a guest at multiple Kelley bashes. "The parties were purely social. It was a way, particularly with the coalition members, to just be a gracious hostess, to say, 'We're glad you're in Tampa.' There's nothing more to it than that."

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