TAMPA — Her business card is utterly ordinary. No big titles. No hint of connections with the military and political elite. It lists her address, her phone number and her name in elegant script:
"Honorable Jill G. Kelley."
But the outsized portrait of herself that Kelley presents to the world will fit on no card. It's seen in her emails to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and others. She drops names. She mentions lunch at the White House in a casual aside, one of three visits she has made there in the last six weeks.
The top U.S. general in Afghanistan is calling from overseas to ask for her help. She spends the weekend with the CIA director whose resignation she would inadvertently help set in motion. And always the party invitations.
Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former chief of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, said the tawdry sex scandal that Kelley helped trigger is as hard to understand as it is odd. How, he asks, did Kelley – a flamboyant South Tampa socialite – skirt the vetting normally insulating the nation's top generals?
"This is strange," Zinni said Friday. "To me, it's just so bizarre."
Zinni said he respects both ex-CIA director David Petraeus and Gen. John R. Allen, the four-star Marine leader whom the Pentagon is investigating for potentially inappropriate emails he sent to Kelley.
Allen served as deputy and acting commander at CentCom from 2008 to 2011. Petraeus, before becoming top U.S. commander in Afghanistan and then CIA director, headed CentCom before Allen.
Petraeus' affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell, was uncovered after Kelley received what she perceived to be threatening emails that she reported to the FBI. Agents traced the emails to Broadwell.
In his day every social invitation and meeting with a civilian was examined by his staff to make sure it would not reflect poorly on the military, said Zinni, a Virginia resident who is now an outside director of the aerospace company BAE Systems.
Zinni said his staff judge advocate — an office providing legal support to a military commander — helped him navigate these sometimes perilous shoals.
Speaking of Kelley's socializing with MacDill brass, Zinni said, "That's something my staff judge advocate would have been on in a heartbeat."
Kelley was anything but subtle about her connections.
"I'm up in DC having dinner tonight with Gen Petraeus & Gen John Allen," Kelley says in one 2012 email to Buckhorn.
After radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge threatened to "deep fat fry" the Koran earlier this year, Kelley told Buckhorn that Allen and Petraeus were seeking her help to get word to Bubba that doing so would endanger lives.
"Gen Allen will be calling me from Afghanistan at 1pm on this — and our next step," Kelley told Buckhorn in a March 7 email.
In recent days, Kelley complained about the constant presence of reporters and photographers outside her house as the scandal broke. She told Buckhorn she was upset that "your police department" released 911 calls she made to Tampa police.
But the 911 tapes were a public record.
"This is a situation of her own making," Buckhorn said Friday. "We're all just bystanders."
• • •
Her timing was spectacular.
On Nov. 4, two days before the presidential election and five days before Petraeus visited President Barack Obama at the White House to offer his resignation, Kelley, her twin sister Natalie Khawam, their children and Dr. Scott Kelley went on a tour of the White House.
On Oct. 24, the sisters had lunch in the White House Mess with a White House staffer. That followed a Sept. 28 breakfast between the same three people.
The White House declined to name the staffer, saying his identity would become public in a few months when visitor logs are posted. But an official said the staffer had gotten to know Jill Kelley through connections to MacDill.
The man worked as a civilian lawyer in Afghanistan and got to know military personnel, who invited him to MacDill, where he met Kelley. He now works as a lawyer in the White House.
• • •
Zinni didn't have much spare time when he commanded CentCom more than a decade ago. He actually tallied it up when he left the combatant command.
"I was gone more than 70 percent of the time," Zinni said. "And of course I didn't have the same crisis situations CentCom's been dealing with for the last 12 years."
So when Zinni heard news reports that Allen exchanged hundreds, perhaps even thousands of emails with Kelley, he was amazed.
"I don't know where the time came to do all of that," said Zinni, noting that he thinks Allen is one of the military's finest commanders. "It's a full-time job."
He said his biggest concern is that the sex scandal will harm the military's reputation. "It chips away at respect," Zinni said.
Zinni said civilians who love the military often try to get too close and, even though they may have good intentions, they can cause difficulties.
"Sometimes it's hard for them to understand that what they're doing might be inappropriate," he said.
Acknowledging that some of the more aggressive civilians sometimes act like groupies at a Rolling Stones concert, Zinni said with a laugh, "It never happened to me."
• • •
Kelley didn't limit her interaction with military personnel to her lavish Bayshore Boulevard home. In October 2010, Kelley jumped out of an airplane with a bunch of commandos.
It was a tandem skydive with a U.S. Special Operations Command's Para Commando parachute team. It's a thrill sometimes offered to select civilians. Miss Florida did it once. No word on where the jump took place. But SOCom, like CentCom, is headquartered at MacDill.
Kelley landed safely.
Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas, Richard Danielson and Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report.