A former White House adviser pleaded guilty to theft Friday, briefly breaking into tears as he tried to explain to a judge why he made phony returns at discount department stores while working as a top aide to President Bush.

"Something did go very wrong," Claude Allen said.

Allen, 45, pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Circuit Court to one misdemeanor count of theft under $500. He was sentenced to two years of supervised probation and ordered to pay a $500 fine.

Allen must also pay $850 in restitution to Target Corp. and perform 40 hours of community service.

In a short statement before he was sentenced, Allen, who made $160,000 a year as a domestic policy adviser, did not directly say why he made thousands of dollars worth of fraudulent returns to Target and other stores last year.

But he and his wife, Jannese, described the stresses he faced last fall, working long days following the Hurricane Katrina disaster, sleeping just two hours each night. The couple and their four children moved four times in three months, at one point living out of boxes in a friend's basement.

"I lost perspective and failed to restrain myself. At the time, I did not realize or fully appreciate what was going on," said Allen, his hands clasped in front of him as he stood behind the defense table. "These factors do not excuse my behavior ... but they were certainly a part of what happened."

Allen apologized to his wife and friends, many of whom filled one side of the courtroom.

Allen was President Bush's domestic policy adviser until he abruptly resigned in February, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. The resignation came after he was arrested in January leaving a Gaithersburg Target store with merchandise that authorities said he didn't pay for.

He told the White House about the arrest, but said it was the result of a mix-up with his credit cards. President Bush later said it would be "deeply disappointing" if Allen had misled White House officials.

Allen could have been sentenced to 18 months in prison on the theft charge. Judge Eric Johnson, however, gave Allen probation before judgment, which means his record will be expunged after his probation is over.

The judge noted that Allen already has suffered public humiliation for his arrest, and said he appreciated that Allen accepted responsibility for the crimes without trying to make excuses.

"You are a classic example ... of the fact that shame is not dead," Johnson said.