Florida socialite, party host for military at the centre of Army general's sex scandal

Tamara Lush, The Associated Press
Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. - If you were to diagram the increasingly tangled sex scandal surrounding former CIA Director David Petraeus, nearly all lines would lead back to one person: Jill Kelley, a 37-year-old Tampa socialite who hosted parties for the nation's top military brass.

The raven-haired woman's complaint about anonymous, threatening email triggered the investigation that led to Petraeus' downfall. And now she is at the centre of an investigation of the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan over alleged "inappropriate communications" between the two.

Kelley, whose family left Lebanon for the United States in the 1970s, is a close friend of the Petraeus family, and photographs circulating the Internet show her posing for pictures at parties with Petreaus, his wife, and sometimes her husband, a cancer surgeon. Kelley served as a sort of unofficial social ambassador for U.S. Central Command in Tampa, hosting parties for the general when he was commander there from 2008-10.

She met Gen. John Allen while he was at Central Command, and now investigators are looking at some of the 20,000-plus pages of documents and emails between Allen and Kelley that have been described as "flirtatious," according to a senior defence official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the case publicly.

Allen denies that he has engaged in any wrongdoing.

For her part, Kelley has kept a low profile since Petraeus' affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, became public after Kelley told an FBI agent that she had received a threatening email, which later turned out to be from Broadwell.

Investigators are still looking into whether any classified documents were ever leaked or in the wrong hands.

Outside Kelley's stately, two-story brick home in South Tampa, a horde of media gathered. A woman believed to be Kelley was seen inside the large windows of the house, which has a half-dozen white columns, black shutters and a neatly manicured lawn. A silver Mercedes S500 in the driveway has a license plate marked "Honorary Counsel," perhaps belonging to Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam, who is an attorney also lives at the home.

Ken Walters, a neighbour, called the Kelleys good friends, but said he doesn't see them all that often. Walters said he went to a party the couple had to celebrate their first son's baptism. The Kelleys have two other children.

"Natalie and her sister, they're certainly not shrinking violets," he said.

Jill Kelley's brother David Khawam told WPVI-TV in Philadelphia on Monday night that details of the allegations surged fast.

"It's happened extremely quickly, we're talking 12, 24 hours, maximum, since we've found out about this. It's a shock. We're trying to figure out where the pieces are falling right now," Khawam said in the interview done at his offices in Westmont, New Jersey.

He said that his family left Lebanon for Huntingdon Valley in Montgomery County in Pennsylvania in the 1970s to escape turmoil and fighting. His parents opened a Middle Eastern food restaurant in Vorhees, New Jersey, called Sahara.

"My family is very patriotic; we came from Lebanon at a young age," he said.

At some point, Jill Kelley married and moved to Florida with her husband, who works at a cancer clinic in the area.

Jill Kelley regularly kept in touch with Petraeus when he became commander of the Afghanistan war effort, the two exchanging near-daily emails and instant messages, two of his former staffers said. But those messages were exchanged in accounts that his aides monitored as part of their duties and were not romantic in tone, the staffers said.

Court records indicate that Petraeus and Allen intervened last September in a messy custody dispute on behalf of Jill Kelley's sister. Both four-star generals wrote letters supporting Kelley's twin sister, Natalie Khawam, in a custody battle over her son.

The court files raise questions why two decorated generals would vouch for Khawam, who had piles of legal troubles in recent years.

Not only did the judge in the case award her ex-husband custody last year of their 3-year-old son, John, but he also told Khawam to pay his legal bills amounting to $350,000. Khawam filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April after racking up more than $3 million in debt, according to federal court records.

The status of her most recent custody appeal was not immediately known.

Khawam's relationship with her ex-husband, Grayson Wolfe, grew to levels of remarkable acrimony as detailed in court papers. She made repeated claims of abuse, which the judge called "an ever-expanding set of sensational accusations" against Wolfe that were "numerous," ''extraordinary," and, "so distorted that they defy any common sense view of reality."

All told, it was a very different dynamic than what the two generals said they witnessed.

"We have seen a very loving relationship — a mother working hard to provide her son enjoyable, educational and developmental experiences," Petraeus said in September, referring to when he hosted the family for Christmas dinner. "It is clear to me that John would benefit from much more time with his mother and from removal of the burdensome restrictions imposed on her when she does get to spend time with him."


Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.