By Michael A. Fletcher and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 12, 2006
Claude A. Allen has said his mother warned him that as a black man he risked ruining his life, or at least his career, by becoming a Republican. As it turned out, nothing could have been farther from the truth.
Allen rose steadily through the Republican political ranks. From congressional campaign aide, to Senate staffer, state Cabinet secretary, federal appeals court nominee and the upper reaches of the Bush administration -- all by age 45.
But Allen's once-soaring career has taken a bizarre turn with his arrest Thursday on theft charges for allegedly ripping off two department stores in a phony refund scheme.
The arrest of Allen, who suddenly resigned last month as President Bush's top domestic policy adviser, startled those in his big-ticket Gaithersburg neighborhood and at the White House who knew him as a soft-spoken and collegial aide who was loyal to his young family and devoted to his church.
"When I heard the story last night, I was shocked, and my first reaction was one of disappointment, deep disappointment," Bush said yesterday.
Allen is accused of swindling Hecht's and Target stores out of more than $5,000 in refunds for items he did not buy. His lawyer, Mallon Snyder, denied the charges. "His returns and refunds were exactly what they should have been," Snyder said yesterday, saying that the charges stem from a series of misunderstandings.
Allen's arrest marks a baffling setback in a career that until recently seemed headed nowhere but up. "If the allegations are true, something went wrong in Claude Allen's life," Bush said. "And that is really sad."
Bush named Allen his top domestic policy adviser last year. With a West Wing office and a salary of $161,000 a year, Allen was the top-ranking African American on the White House staff. His broad portfolio involved advising Bush on policy issues including health care, space exploration, housing and education.
In a White House where real power is centered in a few hands, Allen was not so much a decision maker as he was purveyor and tailor of Bush administration policy. Still, Allen was frequently at Bush's side, accompanying him on trips around the country and briefing him and the media on the administration's domestic policy initiatives.
Despite its prominent profile, the chief domestic policy job was only a consolation prize for Allen. Bush had named him in 2003 to a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, but the nomination was scuttled by Senate Democrats who saw Allen as too conservative and too inexperienced, and blocked it from coming to a vote.
Before coming to the White House, Allen served four years in the No. 2 job in the sprawling Department of Health and Human Services.
Allen got his start in politics in North Carolina, and he spent years working for Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina Republican senator alternately revered and reviled as a conservative stalwart. Allen became a protege of Helms, a fervent opponent of affirmative action who stood against a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Working in Washington, Allen cultivated a circle of influential conservative friends. While clerking for Judge David Sentelle at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in the late-1980s, Allen befriended Clarence Thomas, who served on the appeals court before being elevated to the Supreme Court in 1991.
The two would often go to lunch, sometimes talking about the burdens of being black conservatives. "He would always say to make sure I conducted myself appropriately," Allen recalled in an interview last year.
Allen went on to practice law for several years, before working in Virginia under Gov. Jim Gilmore in the state attorney general's office and as state health and human resources secretary. Gilmore recalled that Allen helped organize a meeting of Southern attorneys general in response to a string of arsons at black churches -- the fires stopped soon after -- and how he was influential in getting King's widow, Coretta, to come to Virginia to demonstrate that it is an inclusive community.
"I have never seen anything except the highest character from Claude Allen," Gilmore said.
As health and human resources secretary, Allen earned a reputation for being a staunch conservative by promoting sexual abstinence programs and helping to reorganize Virginia's welfare system.
Allen's conservative positions earned him the enmity of some civil rights and liberal leaders, but he was a favorite of Christian conservatives, who saw him as one of their own.
Some of Allen's friends in the Avalon Farm neighborhood of Gaithersburg described him as a deeply religious man who was personable and wise, honest and honorable.
"Knowing Claude, I knew that this was not true, and to think that his character would be maligned in this way, in such a public way, was sad," said Ava Rushford, 44, a homemaker who lives near Allen, whom she considers a close friend.
Three years ago, while Rushford was recovering from a spinal tap, Allen's wife, Jannese, sat by her bedside while Allen and his children played with Rushford's daughters. She cried when she learned of Allen's arrest.
The allegations "would be completely day and night out of character from what we would know of him and have been aware of how he operates and the level of integrity he has," said neighbor Nick Tedesco, 50, who takes weekly ballroom dancing classes with the Allens.
Both families also attend the 3,000-member Covenant Life Church, a nondenominational church in Gaithersburg. When the Allens moved to Maryland, they chose the Gaithersburg neighborhood to be closer to Covenant Life Church, said Lucy Tedesco, 46, who works at the church.
"Whenever a house went for sale, I would call them and ask them to move to our neighborhood," she said.
Allen's multi-story home has a tan brick facade with a dozen windows on the front exterior as well as an arched window over the doorway. The Allens bought the home in October for $958,300.
When Allen resigned in February, he told neighbors he wanted to spend more time with his family, after being worn down from the hellish hours at the White House -- which is the same reason he gave White House officials before announcing his resignation on Feb. 9.
"It was wearing on him," Nick Tedesco said. "As he communicated with us, we felt that was his sole and primary reason to leave office."
Staff writers Theresa Vargas, Dan Zak and Michael Shear, and staff researcher Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.