WASHINGTON – During President Bush's State of the Union address, Claude Allen had a coveted box seat as a guest of the first lady. He sat there with an embarrassing secret.
For weeks as he worked side-by-side with Bush on policy that would be included in that Jan. 31 address, he carried the secret that was about to threaten the reputation he built during a swiftly rising career in Republican government.
What Allen knew and apparently didn't tell others at the White House is that he could be in legal trouble. Police say Allen was caught trying to get refunds on items he hadn't bought at a Target store in the Washington's Maryland suburbs, just 30 days before the State of the Union address he was helping to craft.
White House officials say they didn't know the truth about the allegations until last week, after Allen, 45, had resigned from his $161,000-a-year job as Bush's domestic policy adviser. The felony charges have shocked those who knew Allen and considered him completely devoted to God, family and country.
"Nothing from my personal experiences with him would ever have led me to question his integrity, his morals, his honesty," said Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Department deputy secretary who worked with Allen during all five years of the Bush presidency. "He was always regarded as someone with real integrity and somebody with a keen moral compass."
Allen is the great-grandson of slaves who was raised a Democrat in a poor Washington neighborhood. In college, he says he became a born-again Christian and a Republican. He rode those ideologies up through positions in state and federal government, all the way to the White House, where last year he became the highest-ranking black to serve in the West Wing.
Before joining the Bush administration, Allen was Virginia Health and Human Resources secretary.
Allen was a conservative who supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and supported the right of Christian military chaplains to mention Jesus in prayers at the publicly funded institutions. He drew the ire of liberals but impressed those he worked with for being a humble team player who was helpful to staff on all levels. Some of his co-workers, sorry to see him leave, cried at his going away party, held last month in the West Wing.
His explanation that he wanted to spend more time with his family made sense to those who knew him — he complained that he barely saw his two sons and two daughters, ages 2 to 14, with the long hours serving the president. Allen and his Barbados-born wife, Jannese, recently moved to a nearly $1 million home in the Maryland suburbs to be closer to their church, the non-denominational Covenant Life.
His wife home schools their four children, and Allen told people that having the family close to the church's resources was more important than the 10 miles it would add to his commute to the White House.
In his time of trouble, Allen has asked the church's pastoral team to care for him, senior pastor Joshua Harris wrote in a statement on the church's Web site. "Our concern is for his soul," Harris wrote. "Our desire — and Claude shares this — is for him to walk with humility and integrity."
Friends say Allen spent hours at Covenant Life on Sunday, the day after Bush said publicly that he was shocked and deeply disappointed to learn that Allen may not have told officials at the White House the truth about what happened.
Allen was charged with returning merchandise he didn't buy at a Target store on Jan. 2. White House officials said he told the chief of staff and presidential counsel about the charges within 24 hours, but he insisted it was all a credit-card mix-up due to confusion over his recent address change and would be cleared up soon.
Allen first worked in the Bush administration as a deputy secretary at Health and Human Services. Bill Pierce, who was an HHS spokesman during Allen's time there, said Allen was particularly interested in making sure that the poor and minorities had equal access to health care and information, fighting the spread HIV/AIDS and promoting abstinence education among young people. Allen argued that adults were sending a mixed message if they told kids to abstain from sex but to use a condom if they were sexually active.
"Claude liked to talk about how important it was to delay sexual debut for young people," Pierce said. He felt it was important not only to stop the spread of disease, but because of the negative psychological and social impact that have been shown to accompany early sexual activity, Pierce said.
Bush nominated Allen to be a federal appeals court judge in 2003, but his nomination was blocked in the Senate in a dispute over state representation on the court. Democrats also objected to Allen's short legal experience of roughly seven years.
At his confirmation hearing, Allen also had to answer for a statement he made when he was press secretary on Sen. Jesse Helms' 1984 campaign. He told a North Carolina newspaper that Helms' opponent, Gov. James Hunt Jr., was vulnerable because of his links "with the queers." He testified that he didn't mean to disparage gays, but was describing the odd people around Hunt's campaign.
He was also asked how he felt when Helms voted against legislation that created the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. "It was the most difficult day for me in my life," Allen replied.
Allen has not responded to interview requests, so it's not clear whether he ranks his recent days as worse. According to charging documents filed by police in Montgomery County, Md., Allen admitted to a Target Corp. investigator that he fraudulently returned merchandise that he didn't buy.
Police said on at least 25 occasions, Allen made fraudulent returns, worth at least $5,000 in all, for items such as a Bose theater system, a Kodak printer and a men's jacket. They said his scam was to buy items, take them to his car, then return to the store with his receipt. He would select the same items, then take them to the store return desk and show the receipt from the first purchase to get a refund.
His lawyer has denied the charges, and Allen maintains to his friends that he will be vindicated, said one longtime friend who did not want to be quoted by name.