The Tampa socialite who played a key role in toppling CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus is headed to Hollywood to work on a new TV series based on the dizzying 2012 sex scandal.
Jill Kelley served as “honorary ambassador” to U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base near her Tampa home and had extraordinary access to some of the nation’s top military brass. She figured prominently in a complex sequence of events that led to the discovery that Petraeus, a former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his biographer Paula Broadwell were having an affair.
Kelley wrote about the scandal this year in her memoir, Collateral Damage: Petraeus, Power, Politics, and the Abuse of Privacy. The book now has been optioned by Hollywood.
“It’s a true story that reads like fiction,” Jill Kelley tells PEOPLE. “But there’s one big difference between fiction and non-fiction. In this story there are no real winners. Every one of us lost.”
- A scene from a party thrown by Jill Kelley in Tampa in 2010. Pictured (left to right) Kelley’s sister Natalie Khawam, Gen. David Petraeus, Kelley’s husband Dr. Scott Kelley, Kelley and Petraeus’ wife Holly
Kelley’s life was turned upside-down when an FBI leak publicly revealed her as the one who inadvertently led federal agents to discover the relationship between Petraeus and Broadwell.
“It’s timely and fascinating and multilayered,” says producer Ron Senkowski, who will work on the series along with Michael De Luca. “There is a fascination for things that are torn from the headlines and are true and are contemporary.”
The scandal unfolded four years ago when Kelley began receiving mysterious emails regarding her friendship with Petraeus. Alarmed and believing she was being stalked, Kelley contacted the FBI, which opened an investigation. The emails were traced to Broadwell.
When he learned who was sending the emails, Petraeus reportedly tried to shortstop the investigation by asking Kelley to call off the “g-men.”
The entreaties came too late. The investigation was well underway, and eventually would reveal that Petraeus and Broadwell — both married to other people — had been romantically involved, and that Petraeus had given Broadwell notebooks containing classified information.
- Then-Gen. David Petraeus with his biographer and mistress Paula Broadwell in Afghanistan in 2011
The inquiry briefly included — and then exonerated — Kelley’s email correspondence with Marine Corps General John Allen, then the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
“Sadly the side-show was at the cost of my innocent family’s expense, as bogus headlines with false leaks about Jill’s emails continuously ran as ‘breaking news’ around the world for months,” Dr. Scott Kelley, Jill’s husband, tells PEOPLE.
The Kelleys filed a lawsuit against the federal government for invasion of privacy. They later dropped their lawsuit.
In 2015, Petraeus pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified materials. He was fined $100,000 and sentenced to two years of probation.
Broadwell was not charged in the case.
In the aftermath, both Broadwell and Kelley emerged from the scandal with new focus. Broadwell runs an organization, Think Broader, geared toward eliminating social bias in the media. Kelley has become a privacy advocate, and recently gave a lecture on the topic at Yale University.
Kelley’s book on the scandal was optioned after the Kelleys encountered Senkowski by chance in Beirut. Jill Kelley and twin sister Natalie Khawam are Lebanese-American.
“Jill heard my accent, and asked if I was an American. We started talking by the pool, and the next thing you know, we had a deal,” Senkowksi says.
The various interweaving side-shows — such as the infamous “shirtless FBI agent” who sent a joke picture of himself posing alongside mannequins to colleagues and to Jill — are well suited for a TV series, the producer says.
“It’s better than a movie,” Senkowsi says. “There’s so much going on. The story has many layers and nuances.”
“This was a bunch of powerful people acting like children,” says a source with direct knowledge of the case. “It was disappointing to say the least to see this going on.”
The series will focus on the humanity of those involved, the producer says.
“We’re not going to politicize this. It’s a story where you can have sympathy,” Senkowski says. “The best way into this is through Jill’s character. Jill is the relatable Everyman.”
Still in the planning phase for the project, the producers face challenges.
“What are the big moments for Petraeus and Jill?” Senkowski says. “What are the turning points? Where is the victory? There may not be one.”
“We all lost our right to privacy, which means we’ve lost our liberty and freedom,” Jill Kelley says. “Therefore this story is not a thriller. It’s a tragedy.”
As it was in Kelley’s book, the need for privacy will be a theme in the series.
“This is one of the things that people in general are concerned about,” Senkowski says. “Privacy.”
News of the series is being met with mixed reviews.
“Most individuals involved in this saga have tried to move forward over the past four years with humility,” Broadwell tells PEOPLE. “Jill Kelley, by contrast, chose a different route, seeking notoriety and financial gain at the expense of others’ families.” Any story about the scandal “should ultimately include more than one woman’s self-serving narrative,” Broadwell says.
“I’m proud that Jill is trying to make a difference by preventing this abuse of privacy from happening again,” says Dr. Scott Kelley of his wife. Criticism of Jill is based on a “sexist narrative” that was “purposely concocted” to distract from the investigation, Dr. Kelley says.
The forthcoming series is creating buzz within Tampa. Some scenes will be set where genuine action took place: at The Four Green Fields, a thatched-roof cottage style Irish pub where SEALs, former SEALs, Army Rangers, Irish special forces and assorted operatives have been known to hang out.
“As an iconic part of the Tampa landscape, we are always excited about being included in projects involving our city,” says the pub’s owner, Colin Breen.
David Petraeus did not respond to requests for comment. None of the FBI agents involved in the case are permitted to comment.
For her part, Jill Kelley is enjoying her newfound relationship with the West Coast.
“I am amazed how wonderful, caring and generous the folks in Hollywood have been with this project,” Kelley says. “But I am most impressed by their genuine interest in advocating email privacy rights.”
Since starting work on the series, producer Senkowski has become keenly aware of the overall theme of surveillance. He encountered it during a meeting with film partners in Lebanon.
“One day we were at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beirut,” Senkowksi says. “We look up, and there was a drone overhead. In terms of this project, it really hit home.”