By Sandra Sobieraj Westfall
December 03, 2012 12:00 PM

Jill Kelley had e-mailed the Tampa mayor before: to invite him to parties; to tell him she had talked him up to her pal “Dave” Petraeus; to drop the name of Gen. John Allen. But this time it was personal. On Nov. 14 she e-mailed Mayor Bob Buckhorn at 6:18 a.m. about the news crews camped outside her home: “To put insult to injury, your police dept. gave the local 911 tapes to the press! … I’m scared and cannot believe what my City-in which I have contributed so much of my love, time, money and leadership, has now done to me and my innocent family.”

Buckhorn did nothing about Kelley’s complaint and, asked by the Tampa Bay Times about the release of her embarrassing calls to police invoking “diplomatic protection” she’s not entitled to, the mayor answered, “Public record.” For Kelley, 37-an unpaid community liaison at MacDill Air Force Base, who placed herself at the nexus of Tampa’s military-civilian circles since moving there with her husband, Scott, and twin, Natalie Khawam, a decade ago—the mayor’s response was a sign that her fall was now going to be as steep and spectacular as her climb.

As the world saw this week, she had a lot of company on the way down. By cozying up to two four-star generals-and then flaunting her access to them-Kelley inadvertently exposed a scandal that involves both Petraeus, who stepped down as head of the CIA after admitting an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, and Allen, whose promotion to head NATO forces in Europe is in limbo while what government officials describe as suggestive e-mails he wrote to Kelley are reviewed by the Defense Department.

How did every thread in the web link back to a chatty, flirty mom of three in Florida? For military lifers like Petraeus and Allen stationed at Central Command in Tampa, the relative glitz Kelley and her sister brought proved enchanting. “Here’s the thing about commanders: They can get isolated. It’s nice to have civilian friends who support you and the mission,” says an active duty Army community-outreach official. “Mostly it’s a nice thing. This one backfired.”

“A few of us on base called them Jill and Natalie Kardashian,” says a former MacDill Army colonel. “They were like junior high girls, name-dropping.” It merely annoyed locals, but Kelley’s friendships with the generals really didn’t sit right with Broadwell, who until late this spring had been careful about not exposing her personal interest in Petraeus. Then, says a source close to Kelley, anonymous e-mails started to appear, first written under the name KelleyPatrol and sent to General Allen, warning him about Kelley as a person who could harm his reputation. This first e-mail also noted that the sender knew that Allen planned to see Kelley at an event: “They both became concerned, because there’s somebody out there who knows the comings and goings of the general.”

Then the Kelleys began receiving anonymous e-mails (under another name), which this source characterizes as saying, “Think twice-who are you to be hanging out with generals and ambassadors and officials?” One of these e-mails mentioned that Jill planned to see General Petraeus at a dinner in Washington. Kelley was unnerved. Fortunately she had a friend in her Rolodex for that too: local FBI agent Frederick Humphries II, who, says this source, felt “it worthy of being looked into.” It was that call that ultimately led to Broadwell being pinned as the author of the e-mails and-four months later-to Petraeus coming clean about the affair.

“Fred has great instincts,” says a former FBI coworker. “He knew something was amiss, and he was right.” Unfortunately for Humphries, who is generally lauded as a hero for his work foiling a 1999 al-Qaeda plot to bomb the Los Angeles airport, personal photos he sent to Kelley and other friends-including one where he’s posing shirtless next to the naked torsos of shooting-practice dummies-have landed him in the spotlight too.

Despite its amusing moments-insert your own Real Housewives of Centcom joke here-the scandal raises serious questions of national security and military conduct. Some in Congress, led by Virginia’s GOP Rep. Frank Wolf, are calling for public, IranContra-style hearings on the killings of four Americans in Libya that would likely encompass the Petraeus affair. “A select committee would look at everything,” Wolf tells PEOPLE. “Maybe there’s no problem here, but the American people need to know.”

What no committee can uncover, should she choose to keep it secret, is what changed in Broadwell’s heart and mind. Those closest to her don’t know what caused this Army Reserve lieutenant colonel to rail via e-mail against the flirtiness of a socialite who, the Kelley source says, “she never met.”

About the affair and its aftermath, however, Broadwell is “devastated,” her brother Stephen Kranz tells People. “It’s clear she is filled with guilt and shame for what she’s done, and she’s incredibly sorry for the pain she’s caused her husband, her family, Petraeus’s family.”

Pending the outcome of an FBI probe, which turned up classified documents on her home computer, Broadwell has had her security clearance “suspended” but not revoked, an Army source says. Even if cleared by the FBI, says attorney Neal Puckett, “she could face losing her clearance and also her commission.”

So far the only fallout for Kelley has been the loss of her privacy and on-base privileges and the scrutiny of those fascinated by her aggressive climb through Tampa’s social scene. For Jill and her cancer-surgeon husband, Scott, and Khawam, Tampa was a place they could shine with their boundless hospitality. They founded a cancer charity (for which they filed no tax information after 2007) whose budgets were used largely to cater expensive parties, according to tax filings. They befriended officers and just as quickly exploited their connections. Kelley took an “honorary consul” title she was given by South Korea and, according to TransGas Development Systems president Adam Victor, presented the title as an official role conferred upon her by Petraeus (she denies this) and tried to secure an $80 million business commission. “I thought, ‘Who is this woman? How did David Petraeus put someone so inexperienced into this position?'” Victor says. (A source close to Kelley dismisses Victor as an “opportunist.”) Both Petraeus and Allen submitted letters in September for Khawam’s custody fight over her young son, vouching for the integrity of a woman the judge, in a ruling one year earlier, denounced for her “misrepresentations about virtually everything.” Says the Army outreach coordinator: “Who would ask even one four-star general to write a letter for a custody case? Now it’s two four-stars! Who has the brass around here?”

Not that the brass complained much. Petraeus “has always had hard-bodied brunettes on his staff. I don’t know that he hand-picks them, but that’s who he wound up with,” says an Army source. As for Allen, the nature of whose e-mails with Kelley remains a mystery, alternately described as innocuously flirtatious or potentially inappropriate, a family friend describes him as neither and definitely not lured by the high life: “He and his, wife Kathy-at heart they are an old-fashioned mom and pop. On a Saturday night, instead of going out, they’d rather stay home and putter.”

With no one in the whole affair blameless of bad judgment, someone who has worked with Broadwell-Michael O’Hanlon, director of research at the Brookings Institution-says he’s tried to step back and make sense of how good people can make such big, bad mistakes. “She lost some of her emotional balance with [Kelley], and there were missteps she made along the way,” says O’Hanlon. “But Paula is a dedicated parent, did some serious research [for her book] and is dedicated to the Wounded Warrior cause. She made a huge mistake. But she made only half of this decision. Petraeus made the other half.”