A federal judge has called Jill and Scott Kelley's lawsuit against the federal government "thin on facts." A top legal expert calls the complaint "sloppy" and far from conclusive.
Yet two years after it was filed, the lawsuit steadily advances for the South Tampa socialite and her physician husband who played supporting roles in a saga that exposed then-CIA director David Petraeus' affair with biographer Paula Broadwell.
The paparazzi has long since moved on to other scandals, but the Kelleys' suit persists, fueled by the testimony of several current and former high ranking officials — such as former U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta — and an FBI agent who vouched for Jill Kelley.
The case is proceeding on a single allegation against the FBI and Department of Defense: that government officials violated the couple's privacy rights by leaking Jill Kelley's name and hostile emails the couple received from an anonymous sender, later revealed to be Broadwell.
That means the lawsuit hinges on who in the government said what and to whom. Attorneys for both sides are interviewing witnesses and preparing for a possible trial. At least some kind of victory for the Kelleys appears plausible, experts say.
"They may not be the most attractive plaintiffs in the world, but there's a certain moral appeal to the argument that this kind of humiliation just shouldn't happen," said Bob Weisberg, a Stanford University professor and expert in privacy law. "Unless some files accidentally fell out of a drawer when the wind blew, somebody did something wrong at some point."
Filed in June 2013, the Kelleys' lawsuit claims the couple was victimized twice: once by Broadwell and again by government officials who leaked inaccurate and derogatory information about the couple.
A judge dismissed all but one of the Kelleys' 14 allegations. The remaining claim cites the U.S. Privacy Act, which requires federal officials to protect the identity and personal information of witnesses.
"The dissemination of private information to the media presents considerable risk of negative consequences for the individuals involved," said Mary Anne Franks, a University of Miami School of Law professor who specializes in privacy law. "The Kelleys do seem to have suffered significantly due to the government's handling of their information."
Angered by Jill Kelley's rapport with Petraeus and other top military brass at MacDill Air Force Base, Broadwell in 2012 sent anonymous emails to Marine Gen. John Allen and others that disparaged Kelley. She also sent emails to Scott Kelley accusing his wife of having an affair.
The suit claims the Kelleys gave the FBI permission to access one of Scott Kelley's emails, but the FBI accessed others anyway.
After Petraeus' resignation, stories by the Associated Press and other outlets quoted unnamed government officials who identified Jill Kelley. A Washington Post editor contacted Kelley and said he had seen some of the harassing emails.
News reports also cited anonymous government sources saying Jill Kelley engaged in suggestive communications with Allen and that officials were investigating possible adultery between the two. Kelley denied an inappropriate relationship with Allen, who was cleared of wrongdoing.
Petraeus later pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information. Broadwell was not charged.
Claiming emotional trauma, damaged reputations and financial harm, the Kelleys seek unspecified monetary damages and a formal apology, among other demands.
The FBI has denied the allegations. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department declined to comment. The Kelleys' Washington attorney, Alan C. Raul, did not return messages.
U.S. Judge District Judge Amy Jackson Berman called the complaint "thin on facts" but cited media accounts as enough evidence to allow the case to proceed to the discovery phase.
That's a low legal bar to clear, said Weisberg, the Stanford professor who called the complaint a sloppy, "kitchen sink" approach.
"There are some facts offered to suggest someone in the government leaked stuff and there was no good reason for it," he said. "The question is, do (the Kelleys) have enough evidence to prove there were illegal disclosures."
As they depose witnesses, some with big names and titles, the Kelleys' attorneys hope to gather that evidence.
At least one witness — the FBI agent Jill Kelley first contacted about the emails — has given their case a boost.
Special Agent Frederick Humphries II said in a deposition obtained by CNN that his bosses displayed animosity toward Jill Kelley, marginalized her as a victim and regarded her as a "femme fatale." Humphries said he believed someone at FBI headquarters leaked Kelley's name in what "seemed to be a purposeful attempt to discredit both Mrs. Kelley and myself."
"(The Kelleys') lawyers have to prove intentional and willful conduct on the part of the government, and certainly (Humphries) helps show intent on the part of the FBI," said Bruce Jacob, dean emeritus and professor at Stetson University College of Law.
Franks, the Miami law professor, said the evidence paints a particularly troubling picture of Jill Kelley's "plight."
"She was a victim of threats and harassment who was turned into the object of lurid speculation and ridicule after she reported her abuse," Franks said. "Her case should serve as a cautionary tale about the government's ever-expanding powers of surveillance and its cavalier treatment of citizens' private information."