A spellbound nation remains glued to the racy Petraeus-Broadwell-Allen-Kelley saga unfolding on Tampa's Bayshore "Bada Boom" Boulevard. And why not? It's got all the excess typically found on the flirty-flighty Jersey Shore or Keeping Up With the Kardashians.
Only this matters. Some of our top U.S. military brass are neck deep in it. And once again, Tampa finds itself ensnared in a sorry, titillating tale.
Recent headlines are not helping the area's reputation. Consider:
• USA Today: "Tampa's social scene: Kelleys' lavish life hid troubles"
• AP: "Fla. Socialite at Center of General's Sex Scandal"
• New York Times: "Tampa Is Seen as Social Link for Unfolding Scandal"
Even in Germany, Kelley is called "Das Party-Girl der Generale."
What hurts most is that Tampa Bay just finished a herculean effort to host the Republican National Convention. It spent millions to spruce up the metro area and pitch this region as a serious, innovative, 21st century kind of place to do business, relocate corporations and create better jobs.
All that hard-won RNC publicity is now badly bruised.
The timing also stinks because the Tampa Bay business community is just starting to rally around MacDill Air Force Base as a precious $5 billion-plus economic engine for the region and for our growing (if scattered) defense industry.
Now that effort may get harder, though one area defense executive remains bullish.
"I do not believe that this will have a negative effect on our efforts to better integrate the business community with MacDill," says West Point graduate and retired military officer Greg Celestan. He's the founder and CEO of the defense firm Celestar in Tampa.
"Due to MacDill's impact on the local economy, it is essential for the business community to stay involved with the civilian and military leadership on the base, and the military leadership is aware of that," says Celestan, who is about to become chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Building better regional business ties with MacDill is one of his priorities.
"A significant number of the businesses that work on MacDill are staffed or run by veterans. This incident will not affect those efforts," he suggests. "Overall, the business leaders have a legitimate reason to interact with the personnel at the base, and I don't imagine that will change."
MacDill, of course, played key roles in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. It is also home to the United States Central Command (USCENTCOM), and — of great importance for the future — United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), whose specialized, highly focused military forces will play an increasing role in this country's defense.
Critical national security stuff. Yet here we are, transfixed on the extramarital affair of the high-profile, former four-star U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who just resigned as CIA director after running the war in Afghanistan and serving here as commander of USCENTCOM.
Petraeus and wife, Holly, socialized often with Jill Kelley and husband Scott at the couple's Bayshore home. It was Kelley's complaint to the local FBI about harassing emails from (as was later discovered) Paula Broadwell, Petraeus' mistress, that led to Petraeus resigning as CIA director.
Let's not forget the role of another four-star general. John Allen succeeded Petraeus in Afghanistan and served as USCENTCOM deputy commander at MacDill. Some 20,000 to 30,000 documents, many of them emails, represent the volume of communications between Allen and Tampa socialite — or as some describe her, MacDill groupie — Jill Kelley.
That's a lot of communication — a lot of hours focused on a Tampa socialite and not on running a war. A Defense Department official last week said some of the Allen-Kelley exchanges went "beyond flirtatious and can probably be described safely as suggestive." Allen denies any wrongdoing.
Next up: the poor judgment by both Petraeus and Allen in writing letters to a District of Columbia Family Court judge dealing with a child custody battle between Jill Kelley's live-in twin sister, Natalie Khawam, and her husband. The two generals praised Khawam's integrity and parenting skills.
The judge was less impressed, citing Khawam's "severe psychological deficits." The judge described her as lacking "any appreciation or respect for the importance of honesty or integrity" with others. The judge awarded full custody of the 4-year-old son to the husband.
Natalie Khawam filed for bankruptcy in April. And Jill Kelley and husband Scott, a surgeon, face foreclosure proceedings on their Bayshore home and a nearby commercial property, plus numerous lawsuits for failing to pay large credit card and other debts.
Given this ballooning Bayshore disaster, incoming Tampa chamber chief Celestan expects MacDill will rethink its socializing rules.
"I think that this may put a damper on some of the social interaction between some of the (MacDill) senior leadership . . . and private citizens in the community. I am sure that everyone will be very cautious in the near future about attending social events that are not cleared through the base," he says.
"Of course, this would not have prevented these interactions from occurring," Celestan warns. "Who would not attend an event when the four-star commander was invited?"
Jacey Eckhart, the military spouse editor of the website Military.com, told the New York Times last week that she had never known there to be groupies around generals.
"But just like in every other field of endeavor, there is a certain excitement around people that have great power," Eckhart said. "And generals, like captains of industry and certain kinds of celebrities, wield a certain kind of power."
Hey, top brass: How about less groupie time and more military time? We need the might of MacDill Air Force Base focused on the future — not the next Bayshore bash.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]