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.”
Allen and Petraeus stayed in close touch with Kelley after they left Tampa. Although it might seem odd for a general running a war to stay in touch with a hostess back home, it’s not unusual in the military world, where officers and their families frequently move and need to promote good relations with community leaders.
“She was part of that social connective tissue for generals and flag officers,” said one officer.
Two years ago, Kelley strapped herself into a harness and made a tandem parachute jump with Special Operations troops, another official said. She was named an “honorary ambassador” by allied countries at Central Command and even secured a pass that allowed her to enter MacDill during daylight hours without an escort. That pass was revoked this week.
Even before the scandal broke, she had begun to wear out her welcome, flooding senior officers’ inboxes with emails and requests for help organizing her social functions. Her constant presence caused some officers’ aides to worry about the appearance of an attractive, outgoing woman cozying up to senior military leaders.
Kelley had other ambitions as well.
At the Republican National Convention in Tampa in August, New York energy entrepreneur Adam Victor was introduced to Kelley. She was described as “a very close friend of Gen. Petraeus,” who had helped Kelley become South Korea’s honorary consul.
Victor, who was looking to establish a major coal project in South Korea, invited Kelley to New York in mid-September. There, she again played up her Petraeus ties. Victor then flew Kelley to Hawaii to meet with a South Korean delegation to help pave the way for negotiations.
But then, Victor said, Kelley asked for 2% of the gross cost of the project for her compensation. Informed that would mean a fee of about $80 million, Kelley persisted until Victor ended the relationship. An industry standard compensation would be no more than $1 million, Victor said.
“It was such an astronomical figure that it suggested she had no experience in negotiating these types of deals,” Victor said. “Gen. Petraeus had a lapse in judgment in using his influence to put her in that position.”
The Kelleys were making questionable business decisions and falling into financial trouble at home as well.
In 2007, the Kelleys, along with Jill’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam, founded the Doctor Kelley Cancer Foundation to “conduct cancer research and to grant wishes to terminally ill cancer patients.” The charity filed just one tax return, saying it had raised $157,284 in 2007.
None of the three drew a salary — Scott Kelley said he was devoting 30 hours a week to the charity — but most of the money went for expenses, including $43,317 for meals and entertainment, $36,610 for travel and $5,000 for telephone costs. By the time the return was filed, the charity was already defunct, records show.
The Kelleys formed a property company, Kelley Land Holdings, but in 2010 Central Bank brought a foreclosure suit against them involving an office building they’d purchased in downtown Tampa. Public records showed they owed the bank $2.2 million. A judge ordered the property put up for sale last year.
They also fell behind in payments on their Bayshore Boulevard home, with Regions Bank filing a lawsuit in 2010 saying it was owed $1.7 million and hadn’t received any payments since September 2009. They remain in arrears.
Khawam also had legal troubles with a contentious divorce and debts totaling more than $3.6 million. She owed $800,000 to the Kelleys, $600,000 to a St. Petersburg, Fla., man and $53,000 to the IRS. She said she had sold a $15,000 sable coat and a $25,000 Rolex watch and used the proceeds to live on, according to court records.
City police also received dozens of calls from the Kelleys. Their police file, released Wednesday, fills nearly 100 pages, with reports of bike thefts, burglaries, prowlers and harassing callers.
On Tuesday, Tampa police released recordings of five 911 calls placed by the Kelleys since Sunday that complained about trespassers.
Kelley remained secluded in her house Wednesday. A throng of TV cameras waited outside, hoping for a shot of her driving her Mercedes 500 sedan with the license plate “1JK” and an emblem that reads “Honorary Consul.”
Bengali reported from Tampa, and Cloud and Tanfani from Washington. Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.