Jill Kelley, a Tampa, Fla., resident who poured her energies into throwing lavish parties for and hobnobbing with area military brass, is now linked to two of the nation’s top commanders in a fast-moving scandal.
Kelley’s exact connections to former Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, are not yet clear. But federal investigators have said Kelley, 37, triggered the FBI’s discovery of Petraeus’ extramarital affair. According to a senior U.S. defense official, she also exchanged hundreds of emails with Allen, who has now been ensnared in the FBI probe into the matter.
In recent years, Kelley and her husband, Scott, had appointed themselves ad-hoc social ambassadors for military personnel at nearby MacDill Air Force Base, just a stone’s throw from the Kelleys’ mansion on Bayshore Boulevard.
The parties were how Jill and Scott Kelley eventually became friends with Holly and David Petraeus. It is also how Kelley came to be in regular contact with Allen. Both generals served as the top officers at U.S. Central Command, based at MacDill.
The social galas seemed to spare no expense, guests said, and often featured copious buffets, valet parking, string quartets, as well as premium cigars and champagne.
While they were throwing glamorous parties, the Kelleys racked up substantial debt, prompting banks to initiate foreclosure proceedings on two properties and other creditors to sue them for tens of thousands in credit card debt, according to court records filed in Hillsborough County District Court. Guy Coburn, a lawyer who represented the Kelleys in the civil suits, said he had not been authorized by his clients to discuss the cases.
On Tuesday morning, reporters in Tampa were staking out the Kelleys’s two-story brick mansion, where contractors were piling up tables and fold-out chairs from a weekend party and moving them onto a pickup truck.
Jill Kelley has not responded to requests for comment since her name surfaced as part of the controversy. On Sunday, however, a spokesman issued a statement on behalf of Kelley and her husband, saying: “We and our family have been friends with General Petraeus and his family for over five years. We respect his and his family’s privacy and want the same for us and our three children.”
In an interview, Jill Kelley’s brother said his sister had deep affection for Holly and Gen. Petraeus and that she never had anything but a platonic relationship with Gen. Petraeus.
“They were truly good friends for years,” said David Khawam.
The Kelleys’ party-giving had been a tradition for years, friends say, during and after Petraeus was commander of the U.S. Central Command from 2008 until 2010. The two couples developed a genuinely close bond. Kelley and her twin sister, Natalie Khawam, often went shopping and out to lunch with Holly Petraeus, friends said, particularly when her husband was on tour in Afghanistan.
In a 2011 custody battle involving Natalie Khawam and her estranged husband, David Petraeus submitted a letter on her behalf to the judge in the case.
Federal investigators have said Jill Kelley’s closeness to Petraeus — captured in party pictures in local newspapers and online — may have explained why she received harassing emails from Paula Broadwell, who was involved in an extramarital affair with Petraeus.
In addition to being invited to the Kelleys’ parties, the Petraeuses had also been invited to intimate family gatherings. In one family photobook posted online, Petraeus is pictured grinning sweetly with the Kelleys’ three young daughters. The caption from their 7-year-old daughter reads: “I was with General Petraeus. He was at my house.”
Scott Kelley, a prominent surgeon who specializes in stomach cancers and works at the Watson Clinic in nearby Lakeland, told grateful guests of various parties that he and his wife felt a family duty to share their good fortune by showing support for the military.
David Khawam said his sister was a born giver, who early on channeled her charitable efforts into political fundraising and later to the military.
Khawam said that quality stemmed from the Catholic family’s persecution in their native Lebanon, when Jill, David and Natalie were small children and their parents eventually fled to the United States. All three built productive new lives in America, with both David and Natalie becoming lawyers.
Jill Kelley said in a local news interview that she had put aside her studies in medicine to follow her husband to a fellowship in Tampa and raise their children.
“We feel we owe everything we have to this country,” said David Khawam, who practices law in Mount Laurel, N.J. “We’re extremely patriotic.”
Khawam said neither of his sisters had anything but a social relationship with David Petraeus. Friends agreed. Khawam also insisted that Kelley had no idea that complaining to authorities about harassing emails would lead to the discovery about Petraeus’ affair with Broadwell.
One friend said of Kelley and her family: “If Jill knew it would result in harm to General Petraeus’ career, they would never have complained.”
A military officer who is a former member of Petraeus’ staff said Kelley was a “self-appointed” go-between for Central Command officers with Lebanese and other Middle East government officials. She was a fixture at social and charity events involving Central Command officials in Tampa.
The officer said Kelley’s presence was often a bit puzzling to the Petraeus staff but the officer said there was never any indication that her relationship with the general was anything more than social.
Aaron Fodiman, the publisher of Tampa Bay Magazine and a friend of the Kelleys, said people in the family’s social sphere are shocked by the spotlight the FBI investigation has cast on the community.
“She is so gracious, so lovely,” he said. “She’s one of those people — she walks in the room, and the room lights up.”