Breaking Tampa Bay, Florida and national news and weather from Tampa Bay Online and The Tampa Tribune | TBO.com
Sunday, Apr 20, 2014
Military News

Tampa socialite Kelley keen on making connections

By
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 01:32 AM
TAMPA -

As Gen. David Petraeus' star continued to rise, leading to his appointment as CIA director, his close friend Jill Kelley couldn't help but be excited.

Kelley is gregarious and in-your-face, Tampa developer Don Phillips said, with a brashness that allows her to ask favors even of powerful friends. Phillips considers her a devoted family woman and doesn't believe she did anything inappropriate, but the casual way she treated the general concerned him.

People could get the wrong impression, he advised her and others who dealt with Petraeus. If she had a fault, Kelley could be extremely headstrong and make requests of people that perhaps didn't show the proper professional distance, he said.

"You just don't like to disappoint Jill," Phillips said.

The sex scandal that brought down Petraeus has rocked the privileged South Tampa community, from the mansions on Bayshore Boulevard to the private parties at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club. It's on everyone's lips, even if they pooh-pooh it.

Thursday night, a Tribune reporter wandered into the lobby of the yacht club and overheard people gossiping about the Petraeus case. A club manager quickly shuffled the reporter out and begged him not to report anything he had heard.

The case has raised plenty of questions, including what is the proper relationship between military brass and civilians, and whether national security was compromised. Less important but far juicier are questions about Kelley and her sister, Natalie Khawam, that have dominated the news.

Is Kelley just a vivacious transplant from Philadelphia who's trying to fit in? Or is she a manipulative social-climber who tried to cash in by collecting military and political leaders?

And, what was she doing as an honorary consul to South Korea?

Kelley, 37, hit the national news last week when she became embroiled in the sex scandal between Petraeus and his mistress, biographer Paula Broadwell. Kelley alerted a Tampa FBI agent that she had been receiving threatening emails from someone warning her to back off from Petraeus.

The FBI discovered that Broadwell had sent the emails and uncovered the Petraeus-Broadwell love affair at the same time. Petraeus resigned from the CIA on Nov. 9. Shortly after, news broke that another top-ranking military official, Marine Gen. John Allen, had sent Kelley thousands of pages of emails, some of which were flirtatious.

Kelley appears to have been holed up in her brick Bayshore Boulevard mansion since the story broke. She hasn't spoken a word publicly.

Her journey to this point appears to have taken her from her native Lebanon to Philadelphia and finally to South Tampa's social scene.

According to the Philadelphia Daily News, Kelley is from a Maronite Catholic family from Jounieh, Lebanon, a seaport town north of Beirut. Parents John and Marcelle Khawam had four children and immigrated to the Philadelphia area in the mid-1970s, eventually running a Middle Eastern restaurant in New Jersey across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.

Kelley is believed to have moved to the Tampa area about 10 years ago. Sister Natalie lives in Kelley's Bayshore Boulevard mansion; sister Caroline also lives in Florida, and brother David lives in New Jersey.

It's not clear how she met her husband, 46-year-old Scott Kelley, a cancer surgeon affiliated with the large Watson Clinic in Lakeland. Phillips, the Tampa developer, said the two might have met while Scott Kelley was in medical school. His biography on the Watson Clinic's website indicates he did his medical residency at a Philadelphia hospital.

The two appear to be polar opposites. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco, who knows them, said Scott is quiet and low-key, while his wife and her twin sister are outgoing.

"She's a person you would notice because her smile would light up a room," Greco said.

However they met, their marriage has given Jill Kelley access to South Tampa's moneyed social scene and charity circuit. They became members of the swank Tampa Yacht and Country Club and opened their home to military parties, which often included Gen. Petraeus and his wife, Holly.

She was accepted into Friends of MacDill, a program that gives community leaders unescorted access to MacDill Air Force Base.

Since the scandal broke, a Where's-Waldo array of photos has surfaced of sisters Kelley and Khawam posing with political and military leaders.

Jill Kelley, in a low-cut dress, can be seen leaning into former Gov. Charlie Crist on his 2006 campaign website. The sisters popped up at a campaign fundraiser for Marco Rubio, arm in arm with the future U.S. senator. And they can be seen mingling with David and Holly Petraeus on the Kelleys' front lawn during Gasparilla.

Jill Kelley and her sister appeared supremely confident, willing to ask favors of national military leaders and state and local politicians. When Natalie Khawam faced an ugly divorce and custody battle, Petraeus and Allen intervened in the case by writing letters to the court on her behalf — an extremely unusual move.

Kelley sent numerous emails to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn inviting him to the parties at her mansion and dropping the names of national and world leaders.

In one email to the mayor, she writes, "Bummer…I was hoping to see you and Cathy tonight at dinner with the king of Jordan."

In another, she writes to a member of Buckhorn's staff: "Sorry we had bad reception, I'm up in DC having dinner tonight with Gen. Petraeus & Gen. John Allen." (Allen replaced Petraeus as the commander in Afghanistan.)

Despite her impressive connections, the couple's façade of wealth hid their true financial difficulties. Court records indicate Regions Bank has foreclosed on their home, demanding they repay $1.8 million in principal and interest. Meantime, another bank took back a commercial property the couple owned in downtown Tampa, and a credit card company sued Jill Kelley over unpaid debts.

Friends and critics offer different theories about what makes Kelley tick and why she cultivated friends among the military and political elite.

Ken Walters, who runs a promotional products company and is deeply involved in South Tampa's social scene, said he thinks the Kelleys simply found a home among the MacDill Air Force Base and U.S. Central Command community in Tampa. He had a single date with Natalie Khawam several years ago.

"My feeling is that Jill just wanted to be part of something special," Walters said.

Others are less forgiving. A few months ago, Jill Kelley secured a position as an honorary consul to South Korea, a position that allows those who secure it to intervene in foreign-trade issues or when someone has a passport problem.

One Tampa man involved in the Republican National Convention in August said Kelley was trying to capitalize greatly from her new consular status. During the convention, she lobbied to gain access to corporate executives' private suites at the convention's venue, the Forum.

"She was handing out business cards that said Ambassador Jill Kelley," he said.

At least one businessman, Adam Victor of TransGas Development Systems of New York, said he briefly considered hiring her to help him win business in South Korea. He backed off when she asked for a matchmaking fee amounting to $80 million, which he considered outlandish.

It's not clear yet how the Kelley-Petraeus-Allen controversy will end, and some community leaders worried Friday about commenting publicly, afraid of being caught in any collateral damage.

Many in Tampa's business and social worlds appeared tired of the constant media attention lavished on Kelley. They worried that it was sending a poor image to the world about the city and that it might hurt the city's ties to its vital military community.

"This situation does not represent us as a community that supports all things military," said Bob Rohrlack, head of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, whose organization has fielded numerous calls from the media about the Kelley controversy.


msasso@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7865 Twitter: @msasso

Comments