Star-Studded Strategy

Jill Kelley’s Campaign to Befriend Petraeus, Allen, and Other Top Brass

The second woman in the Petraeus scandal is a canny socialite who doggedly cultivated the CIA director and Gen. John Allen, got them to write letters backing her sister in a custody case—and even talked her way into jumping with an elite parachute unit. Michael Daly reports.

11.14.12 9:45 AM ET

There is still no telling how many fates were about to turn when an FBI agent handed 37-year-old Jill Kelley his card after speaking at one of the “civilian academies” the bureau runs as part of its public-relations effort.

Kelly later dialed the number on the card to tell the agent she had been receiving a series of unnerving emails. The chain of events that followed would see the agent shamed for supposedly sending Kelley a shirtless picture of himself, although according to one knowledgeable law-enforcement source, it actually was a photo of himself with what appears to be a prominent politician and some other guys at a casual outing where they had their shirts undone.

There were far more serious repercussions for Gen. David Petraeus, who would be forced to step down as director of the CIA.

Gen. John Allen would find his confirmation as NATO chief suddenly in jeopardy as officials began to review thousands of emails originating either with him or with Kelley, though only a few hundred of them appear to actually be directly to each other.

The Pentagon has described some of these emails as “flirtatious” and “of an affectionate nature,” but Allen is unwavering in his insistence that he did nothing untoward.

And there is every possibility that the emails are in fact simply a reflection of Kelley’s energetic effort to ingratiate herself with the top brass at MacDill Air Force Base.

Allen may not have been Kelley’s lover any more than was the Special Forces admiral who is said by one former intelligence officer to have finally given into her pestering and allowed her to jump with the nation’s most elite parachute commandos.

“Do not ever bring that lady back here again,” the team leader is supposed to have said afterward, according to the former intelligence officer.

Kelley has been described as a big supporter of the military, but her efforts appear to have been concentrated on those who have stars on their shoulders. One person who had not even heard of Kelley when The Daily Beast spoke to him Tuesday was retired Army Col. Jim Griffin, head of the Tampa chapter of the Military Officers Association of America. MOAA is extremely active on MacDill Air Force Base, in particular when it comes to the wounded service members who continue to arrive from Afghanistan with harrowing frequency and devastating injuries.

“Jill Kelley? Who?” Griffin asked.

The commanders of Central Command sure know her. Petraeus and his wife, Holly, had no sooner arrived in Tampa than they were invited to a dinner at the $1.3 million home Jill Kelley shares with her husband, Dartmouth- and Columbia-educated cancer surgeon Scott Kelley.

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“She found a unique niche that worked very well for her,” says Aaron Fodiman, publisher of Tampa Bay magazine and a local social fixture. ”When these new commanders would come with their family, she’d be there, telling their wives where to get their hair cut and where to get a great birthday cake.”

Fodiman sees it as only natural for generals such as Petraeus to be the recipients of such particular attention.

“The higher you are in the food chain, the more help everybody wants to give you,” Fodiman says. “Welcome to the world. That’s the way life is.”

At the same time, Petraeus and the other generals helped Kelley achieve the social prominence that seemed to have been her goal when she and her husband arrived in Tampa a decade ago.

“She worked at it,” Fodiman says. “She did the right thing. They started getting involved in the various charities ... They’d invite people to parties they were having, people would invite them in turn to their parties.

“When she went to people’s homes, she was always somebody they were glad to have … And when you were at her house, she was the absolute princess hostesses.”

He sees her as Tampa’s answer to Washington’s legendary “hostess with the mostest.”

“A young Pearl Mesta,” Fodiman says.

Perhaps the highest point for Kelley came during the 2010 Gasparilla parade, a kind of Mardi Gras ostensibly honoring a probably fictitious pirate. The Kelleys set up a big white tent on their lawn so an unwelcome rainstorm did not spoil the fun. Petraeus arrived like the hero many people considered him to be.

“The CentCom commander and his wife, Holly, arrived with a 28-cop motorcycle escort,” the Tampa Bay Times society page noted.

Private guards armed with Tasers stood ready to chase any parade riff-raff from the grounds as the catering staff from Events by Amore offered lamb chops and crab cakes to guests, who also included a university president and a candidate for state attorney general.

“Awesome,” Petraeus was heard to say of the event.

Photographs suggest Jill Kelley felt the same. And well she should have, for this was a victory of another kind for the daughter of John and Marcelle Khawam, a Catholic couple who had emigrated from Lebanon in the 1970’s with little more than a determination to do better.

John had been a noted organist at home and went to work playing in a Philadelphia restaurant, the Middle East. It was owned by Jimmy Tayoun, a Philadelphia politician who replaced a city councilman who was convicted of taking bribes—and then was himself convicted of the same. Tayoun served almost three years, but remained an eminence on the Philadelphia political scene. He was happy when the Khawams opened a series of restaurants of their own, all called Sahara.

“They’re an American dream,” Tayoun says.

The Khawams had four children, including identical twins, Jill and Natalie, who became renowned for their beauty as they grew older.

“They were twins to die for. You know what I mean?” Tayoun says.

He reports that they had sometimes sought his counsel as they operated a small auto insurance company for their father.

“They used to come to me with headaches,” Tayoun says. “I knew everybody in town. I know where to go, what to do.”

Jill met and soon married Scott Kelley, whom she seem to hold in such regard that she sometimes spoke of him as “Dr. Kelley” even at home among friends. He devised a noninvasive method to operate on esophageal cancer and was hired as a rising star by the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

The society pages record the Kelleys’ participation in events for the Red Cross, Tampa Museum of Art, and Tampa Hospital. The Kelleys hosted a dinner to benefit a municipal museum and had a pianist play period pieces by the likes of Irving Berlin, whose “Call Me Madam” happens to have been inspired by Pearl Mesta’s time as ambassador to Luxembourg.

Kelley was on her way to becoming a kind of diplomat herself, as she extended her social whirl to MacDill Air Force Base. The facility had been a staging ground for the Spanish American War and then a major training base for bomber crews during World War II. It had been in danger of closing when the Cuban Missile Crisis revived its strategic importance, and it had subsequently become a training base for fighter pilots. It now serves as headquarters for both Central Command and the Special Operations Command, besides having two 18-hole golf courses and what was described as the best golfing in the Air Force.

Among those assigned to CentCom were representatives from 62 coalition countries. Kelley’s status as a first-generation American may have made her more ready than some to embrace those from faraway lands, and she brought a little exotica into her circle by including liaisons from our various allies in the war effort. The South Korean representatives are said to have been so taken with her that they made her an “honorary consul,” a title she included on the license plates of her silver Mercedes.

In the CentCom commanders, Kelley found figures who would have fit right in at the real Pearl Mesta’s parties. She was made an “honorary ambassador” to the Coalition Forces, which is almost as good as becoming a real ambassador of Luxembourg.

At the same time, the Special Operations Command took note that CentCom had been very successful in connecting with the movers and shakers in Tampa. One of the commanders, an admiral, decided to invite some of the city’s prominent citizens to dine with him, 10 at a time. They of course included Kelley, who afterward began telephoning the admiral directly, as if she considered herself too important to bother with underlings.

At one point, Kelley is said to have made known her desire to jump with the U.S. Special Operations Command Parachute Team, composed of paracommandos from the nation’s most elite units. She was told such jumps are a rare privilege reserved for VIPs. She is said to have replied, in essence, “I’m a VIP.”

By one knowledgeable account, Kelley was allowed to make the jump. She is not said to have made a particularly favorable impression with the team.

Her specialty is generals, anyway, and she became so close to Allen as well as to Petraeus that they both agreed to write letters on behalf of her twin sister in a bitter child-custody case. Natalie Khawam had become a lawyer and had married one as well. But the marriage had soon ended in divorce and in November 2011, a Washington, D.C., judge had awarded sole physical custody of their young son to the father, Grayson Wolfe.

In his decision, Judge Neal Kravitz rejected the sister’s allegations that she had been a victim of domestic violence. The judge wrote, “Ms. Khawam spears to lack any appreciation or respect for the importance of honesty and integrity in her interactions with her family, employers, and others with whom she comes in contact. The court fully expects that Ms. Khawam’s pattern of misrepresentations about virtually everything, including the most important aspects to her life, will continue indefinitely.”

Kelley had testified that she had seen Wolfe try to push her sister down some stairs while she was clutching the baby, but the judge advised, “The court does not credit this testimony.” The judge termed Kelley “a patently biased and unbelievable witness.”

Khawam strenuously denied the judge’s assertions and was now seeking to get the decision overturned. The court received two envelopes embossed with four gold stars.

One envelope contained a letter from Petraeus, who wrote: “Natalie clearly dotes on her son. It is unfortunate, in my view that her interaction with her son has been so limited by the custody settlement.” The other envelope contained a letter from Allen, who urged the judge not to deprive the child of the “love, mentorship, and guidance of his mother.”

That was six weeks ago and the fate of at least one of these generals was about to take a bad turn. The FBI agent who had given Kelley his card had been periodically checking with the cybercrime squad, but the increasingly sensitive nature of the investigation prompted his fellow agents to cut him off, apparently for fear something might leak.

The agent is said to have decided it was a cover-up and sought the counsel of a friend. The friend is said to once have been a deputy sheriff in Washington state and to have gotten to know Republican Rep. Dave Reichert of that state. The friend put the agent in contact with Reichert, who referred it to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who is said to have called an assistant director of the FBI, who is said to have told director Robert Mueller.

That ended any chance of the matter remaining within the bureau. One result was that the press began rummaging through Kelley’s life and discovered that even as she and her husband were fêting generals, they were facing foreclosure on an office building they owned, as well a number of suits involving unpaid debts.

The most manifest result for Kelley was that reporters crowded around her mansion, even trespassing on the lawn where she had watched the parade with Petraeus. She called 911 to complain, and spoke as if she were a real Pearl Mesta, an actual ambassador.

“You know, I don’t know if by any chance, because I’m an honorary consul general, so I have inviolability, so they should not be able to cross my property,” she was recorded telling the 911 dispatcher. “I don’t know if you want to get diplomatic protection involved as well.”

Kelley and her husband hired a prominent lawyer, Abbe Lowell. She also has retained a “spin doctor,” Judy Smith, who is extremely good at not returning phone calls so that it was impossible to get any comment about anything, be it debts or lawsuits or a parachute jump.

Meanwhile, Jim Griffin and the others of the Military Officers Association keep doing all they can for our real VIPS, those wounded soldiers far below the rank of general who continue to return from the war now being run by Allen in Afghanistan.

“We thought we’d be out of business by now,” Griffin says. “But we’re still very active.”