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Tampa’s military, civilian elite at center of scandal

In this Jan. 30, 2010, photo, Natalie Khawam, left, General David Petraeus, Scott and Jill Kelley, and Holly Petraeus watched a parade from a tent on the Kelley's front lawn in Tampa, Fla.

AP

In this Jan. 30, 2010, photo, Natalie Khawam, left, General David Petraeus, Scott and Jill Kelley, and Holly Petraeus watched a parade from a tent on the Kelley's front lawn in Tampa, Fla.

TAMPA — Jill and Scott Kelley moved here nearly a decade ago, taking up residence in a huge red brick home with a spectacular view of the water on Bayshore Boulevard, the city’s most fashionable street. They quickly established themselves as social hosts to the powerful four-star officers who run two of the nation’s most important military commands.

The Kelleys were known for their lavish parties, with extravagant buffets, flowing Champagne, valet parking, and cigars for guests from nearby MacDill Air Force Base, including former General David H. Petraeus and General John R. Allen, who now commands troops in Afghanistan. ‘‘Tampa is the kind of community where, if you’re new to the community, you can carve out your own niche,’’ said Pam Iorio, the city’s former mayor, who recalls mingling with Petraeus and his wife, Holly, at the Kelleys’ home. ‘‘They decided to carve out a niche with the military.’’

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Now the social link between Tampa’s military and civilian elite is at the center of an unfolding Washington scandal that has already cost Petraeus his job as director of the Central Intelligence Agency and is threatening to undermine the reputation of Allen, who was Petraeus’s deputy when he was here in 2008 to 2010.

At the heart of the investigation is the Tampa woman who spawned it: Kelley, who received threatening anonymous e-mails that set off an FBI investigation revealing that Petraeus had an affair with his biographer. On Tuesday, Allen was caught up in the scandal, when the Pentagon said that it was investigating whether he had engaged in ‘‘inappropriate communication’’ with Kelley; associates of the general say the messages were innocent and President Obama voiced support for him.

Records show that Kelley and her husband, a doctor, have been subject to a string of lawsuits over debts, including $2.2 million on a building they owned. They also ran a cancer charity, which appears to be defunct. But the couple appeared to be well regarded at MacDill, home to Central Command, which runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and hosts officers from more than 50 foreign countries, and Special Operations Command, which trains commandos for missions like the one that killed Osama bin Laden. The two sit side by side on the base, where generals, admirals, and other high-ranking officers live in elegant homes on a spit of land that juts into Tampa Bay. Often, they invite community leaders to social receptions of their own.

Indeed, Petraeus and his wife grew so close to the Kelleys that they hosted the couple and Kelley’s twin sister, Natalie Khawam, for Christmas dinner last year. Both Allen and Petraeus also wrote letters to a District of Columbia court vouching for Khawam in a child custody dispute.

That kind of closeness — and the Kelleys’ fancy parties — strikes some military people as odd.

‘‘I have never known there to be groupies around generals,’’ said Jacey Eckhart, the military spouse editor of the website military.com. ‘‘But just like in every other field of endeavor, there is a certain excitement around people that have great power. And generals, like captains of industry and certain kinds of celebrities, wield a certain kind of power.’’

MacDill Air Force Base is a driving force behind the Tampa economy. The local chamber of commerce estimates $6.7 billion a year flows into the Tampa Bay area from the base. Military contractors and other defense-related companies dot the city. Business deals are often made in the plentiful strip clubs and steakhouses.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the base only grew in importance, as Central Command and Special Operations Command took on leading roles in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is unusual to have two high-level commands on the same base; their proximity puts MacDill at the center of US military activity. The CentCom commander is typically a local star.

‘‘He was looked at like the CEO of Chrysler is in Detroit,’’ said Roger Maddox, a retired military officer who lives here. ‘‘Bigger than the mayor. His existence is what brings so much money to the community.’’

While other prominent Tampa residents were supporting the military in other ways — raising money for wounded veterans, standing on street corners with flags — the Kelleys stuck mostly to hosting social events.

When foreign dignitaries visited Central Command, the command’s generals could count on the Kelleys to host a dinner in the dignitaries’ honor.

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