Scandals, like wine grapes, capture the soil they grew in. New York scandals feature Wall Street chicanery. Washington scandals feature politicians, interns, and government shutdowns. The sudden downfall of former general and CIA director David Petraeus began at Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he met Paula Broadwell, the Army-major-turned-graduate-student who became his biographer and his mistress. But as the intrigue widened last week — to include a second four-star general, a tall stack of ostensibly flirty e-mails, and a mysterious FBI agent known for days only as “shirtless guy” — reporters zeroed in on Tampa and the aspirations of 37-year-old socialite Jill Kelley.
It was Kelley who inadvertently brought Petraeus’s affair with Paula Broadwell to the FBI’s attention. Born in Lebanon, raised around Philadelphia, and married to a cancer surgeon, Kelley became friendly with Petraeus when he ran Tampa-based Central Command, which oversees US military activities in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Generals at CentCom oversaw the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were also sought-after figures on Tampa’s social scene. Kelley acted as a welcome wagon, hosting parties and gaining a foothold as an unofficial social liaison to MacDill Air Force Base. In one widely circulated photo taken at a party at Kelley’s home, Petraeus and his wife stand alongside Kelley, her husband, and her sister — with Mardi Gras beads and awkward smiles all around.
Kelley’s proximity to two Tampa generals proved fateful. Her friendship with Petraeus prompted a seemingly hostile anonymous e-mail that she reported to an FBI acquaintance — a man who, for reasons that remained unclear late last week, had once sent her a bare-chested photo of himself. The message, in turn, led agents to Broadwell and Petraeus. Meanwhile, General John R. Allen, the top military commander in Afghanistan, was under investigation last week over e-mail exchanges with Kelley that perhaps used the term “sweetheart” a little too often.
The more details dribbled out, the more the entire case took on an only-in-Florida kind of weirdness. The Kelleys lived in a lavish home, but had been on the receiving end of lawsuits and foreclosure proceedings. There was a messy child-custody case involving Kelley’s twin sister, who somehow got both Petraeus and Allen to write letters attesting to her fitness. And Kelley herself recently tried to pull rank — as an honorary consul general for South Korea — in a 911 call about a possible trespasser on her property.
The Petraeus scandal is sure to be Kelley’s springboard from Tampa to tabloid-media celebrity. Clearly aware of the possibility, Kelley hired Monica Lewinsky’s PR agent to represent her.