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The Enigmatic Man
Claude Allen's Desire to Rise in the GOP Puzzled Some, but His Fall Confounds Them More

By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 25, 2006

They left the Durham city limits and entered the real South.

For Amy Kraham, the change was striking as she ventured out of the cocoon of Duke University that summer of 1987 and drove her old Ford Granada into the North Carolina countryside.

The journey was simple: to fetch a puppy advertised in the paper. But her fiance, a med student, wasn't able to go with her. So Claude Allen Jr., a Duke University Law School friend, volunteered to go.

They were just two people, driving down the road, getting lost in unfamiliar terrain. But he was black, she was white. The twilight zone of race awaited them as they stopped at a roadside store.

"When we walked into the convenience store, the atmosphere became very charged and hostile," Kraham recalls.

Allen stepped to the counter. A white man was there. Allen asked for directions. The man just stared at him, said nothing.

The man seemed "challenging and somewhat angry," Kraham says. She felt "nervous and scared." She'd never encountered anything like this in her New Jersey youth.

She spoke up, repeated their request for directions. The man turned to her and obliged.

Back in the car, Kraham was shaken, reflective. Allen said nothing about the incident. He didn't seem angry. She wondered if he'd been through such things many times before.

Allen was somewhat famous at school. His classmates, the vast majority of whom were white, knew him as the black guy who worked for Sen. Jesse Helms, North Carolina's famed -- and infamous -- white conservative Republican . Allen endured some gentle ribbing for it.

Finally, they arrived at the house where Kraham would find her pup, a border collie. But the woman who had the dog refused to part with it. Kraham didn't understand. She told the woman how she and her fiance had a house with a fenced yard. They'd provide a good home, Kraham assured her.

Round and round they went, until the exasperated woman asked, "Why do you keep referring to your boyfriend in the third person when he's standing right here?"

"And I said, 'Oh, that's not my boyfriend; that's a friend.' And I was immediately given the dog."

They rode back to Durham. Allen held the puppy as Kraham drove.

"I remember thinking that Claude was nowhere near as upset or angry or disturbed as I was," says Kraham, now an assistant city attorney in Bellingham, Wash.

They never talked about the day's events. Kraham did not know, could not know, what Allen really thought, really felt.

The Charges

There are things unseen, unknown, that Allen does not reveal about himself, people who know him say.

He is personable, charming and easy to talk to, and yet there are hints of a space that he maintains around his life, his personal thoughts, like a moat.

Even before his arrest on March 9, after a sterling career in which he rose to become a senior White House adviser, there was something enigmatic about him, a sense that more was happening beneath the surface than was readily apparent. And now, many of his friends are wondering just what that might have been.

It is impossible, these friends say, to even imagine Allen strolling into Montgomery County Target stores in full view of security cameras and committing serial fraud.

The cameras recorded a casually dressed Allen, 45, "making purchases at Target stores, leaving the stores, returning a few minutes later empty handed, selecting the same merchandise from the shelves, and then refunding the money back to his credit card, even though he has the merchandise in his vehicle." That's the narrative from the District Court of Maryland charging document.

Allen did this 25 times between Oct. 29 and Jan. 2, hitting both Target and Hecht stores, the document says. All told, it alleges, his American Express and Visa cards were credited around $5,000 from the transactions.

Allen allegedly walked away with clothing, a theater system, a printer, a stereo, some random items worth $2.50 and cleaning products.

On Jan. 2, the day he was charged with a misdemeanor (before police knew the felonious extent of the alleged fraud), Allen informed then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card. He reportedly told Card there had been a misunderstanding with his credit card.

He continued life as usual at the White House -- attending daily meetings on domestic policy; appearing at a White House luncheon on Jan. 17; sitting with first lady Laura Bush during the Jan. 31 State of the Union address; traveling with the president a couple of days later to Minnesota.

On Feb. 9, he told the White House he was resigning to spend more time with his family. On Feb. 17, his last day, he conducted an "Ask the White House" online chat about domestic policy, the field in which he advised President Bush on health care, education, housing and other policies, and coordinated the implementation of those policies across government agencies.

And then he was gone -- only to resurface in the news as an alleged felon on March 9, charged with two counts of felony theft, each carrying a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Police later told The Washington Post that Allen had, on the day of his initial misdemeanor citation, admitted he was committing a fraudulent refund.

Mallon Snyder, one of his lawyers, described the arrest then as a big "misunderstanding."

Neither Allen nor any of his relatives nor his lawyers, Snyder and Gregory B. Craig, would speak for this article. His trial had been set for Thursday, but yesterday his lawyers applied for a postponement.

Shortly after his arrest, Allen asked his pastor at Covenant Life Church of Gaithersburg for help. A devout Christian, Allen moved his wife and four children from Reston to Gaithersburg to be closer to the church. Joshua Harris, the senior pastor, told the large congregation on March 12 that pastors would be ministering to Allen.

Allen "has invited our care," Harris said, according to the statement he read to the congregation. "Our role is not to provide legal counsel. Our concern is for his soul."

What Went Wrong?

Were the rigors of the grueling White House schedule too great?

Did Allen snap after decades of operating outside the African American mainstream and often in concert with figures, like Helms, viewed as hostile to black interests?

Were there money troubles? Was that million-dollar house in Gaithersburg too much for him, on a $161,000 salary?

The news of his arrest ricocheted across the country. His acquaintances and supporters were flabbergasted, disbelieving.

"They're merely allegations at this point," says Ashley L. Taylor Jr. He's an old friend of Allen's from the Virginia attorney general's office and a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

Reminded that Allen allegedly had admitted the Jan. 2 fraud, according to police, another friend, Jack Simonds of Durham, N.C., says: "Even if that's the case, this man has proven himself so many times over to me that I would certainly hope that it would turn out for the good in some way."

To these friends and colleagues, Allen has been defined by a trajectory of success. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Duke Law bar association president. U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals law clerk. Baker Botts, the law firm of former secretary of state James A. Baker III. Virginia attorney general's office. Virginia secretary of health. Deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nominee to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. White House domestic policy adviser.

He's an identical twin -- so identical that people routinely mistake him for his brother Floyd, and vice versa. Floyd Allen, of King George, Va., works in retail security. They were born in Philadelphia, then moved to Washington. Their father was a truck driver, their mother a school worker. They lived in an apartment on Missouri Avenue NW. The boys played in the Archbishop Carroll High School band in ninth grade.

Then the family moved to Raleigh, N.C., where the boys ditched class "a time or two," recalls Paul C. Ridgeway, a Sanderson High School pal of the twins and now a Raleigh lawyer. But each became a star in his own right -- Claude as student body president, Floyd as a football running back -- though in adult life, it is Claude who has succeeded more exceptionally.

People point to Allen's character as his strong suit. Taylor describes him as a leader who "wore power lightly. He didn't throw it around."

That may be because Allen didn't see power as his to own. In a 2001 interview in Sovereign Grace magazine, Allen called his busy schedule "the Lord's time." Speaking of his appointment as deputy secretary at HHS, he said, "I feel that God prepared me in Virginia to serve on a national level."

Allen also is defined by his heritage, his "Grandpa Ray." During the 2003 confirmation hearings for his failed nomination to the 4th Circuit, he spoke of the inspiration he received from Grandpa Ray, who was "one of 25 children, lived to be 114 years old, the first child in his family not to be born a slave."

Asked what his Grandpa Ray would say of his grandson, Allen replied: "My grandfather would say, 'A job well done, my grandson.' . . . I think my granddad would be very honored, very proud."

Always Unflappable

"There had to be something else beneath the surface." That's what Martin Ricciardi thought when he got to know Allen in the summer of 1987. Both were pursuing dual degrees (for Allen, a JD plus an LLM in international and comparative law).

Ricciardi attended Allen's wedding that year to Jannese Mitchell, a Smith College graduate in the travel business, striking and elegant, with a lilting accent from her native Barbados.

Ricciardi also was married. The couples sometimes went out to a movie or the theater.

But politically, Ricciardi was far to the left of Allen and very much opposed to Sen. Jesse Helms. Still, he found himself liking this man who had flacked for the North Carolina conservative who fought the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday.

Perhaps Allen, as a black man, possessed an extraordinary level of tolerance or even forgiveness, Ricciardi thought. Now a lawyer in Albany, N.Y., he was never able to square it.

"So I knew there was a lot more beneath the surface than met the eye," he says of Allen. Something there, but unseen.

There was, says another friend, a reserve around Allen.

Speaking of the loose fraternity of black conservatives that includes Allen, black conservative commentator Armstrong Williams says: "He was always very private. And you always knew which buttons not to push with him and where not to go. There was this space around him. Where others were open and having fun, he was more reserved. I think there were things he kept to himself. You always sensed that.

"He was the son, the brother, the cousin that you want to put your arm around and protect," says Williams, who calls Allen a friend. "You always felt that he was fragile."

That word -- so easily, it can be interpreted as weakness. Other friends of Allen's wanted to make clear that they did not see him as weak or too tightly wound.

"I have never seen anything in Claude Allen's background to indicate instability emotionally. Nothing. None at all," says former Virginia governor James S. Gilmore III, now a partner in the Washington firm of Kelley, Drye and Warren. Allen served under Gilmore from 1995 to 2001.

Allen never appeared overwhelmed or stressed out. That was not his style. He was always unflappable. In a Duke Law School magazine profile last year, Allen described himself this way:

"I don't take compliments too seriously lest they make me prideful, and I don't take criticisms too harshly lest they cause me to become discouraged."

Even his ideological opponents could see that.

King Salim Khalfani, executive director of the Virginia NAACP, recalls Allen being cool, calm and respectful the day Allen delivered an odd package to him.

It happened in 2000, after a meeting where the NAACP was threatening a boycott if Gov. Gilmore did not end the state's commemoration of Confederate History Month. Allen, then the state's secretary of health and human resources, attended with Gilmore to help argue the state's case for a slower reconsideration of the Confederate issue.

As the meeting drew to a close, Allen approached Khalfani.

"He told me he had something for me," Khalfani said. "He gave it to me and said, 'I hope you like it.' "

It was a poster tube, which Khalfani opened back at his office. It contained a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate commander, in the uniform of his surrender.

It was so strange, so galling. It felt like an ideological right hook, but Khalfani wasn't sure what to make of it.

Allen "was a gentleman, always cordial, always respectful," but he was "quite the ideologue," says Khalfani.

"For him to give the executive director of the state NAACP a portrait of Robert E. Lee was just so . . . so . . . Claude!"

Asked what he knew about the Confederate poster, Gilmore made a few phone calls to find out about it and learned that Allen had intended the poster of Lee's surrender to be "a gesture of goodwill and relationship-building."

The subtlety was lost on Khalfani. (In 2001, the state dropped the Confederate History Month proclamation.)

Contradictions

Raised by Democrats, Allen shocked his mother, the late Lila Allen, when he told her back in 1982 that he was going to work for Republicans, according to Knight Ridder newspapers.

"Oh please, don't do that," she said. "You'll ruin your life."

She was giving voice to a deep belief in the black community, given popular expression by Buddy Watts, the late father of former Republican congressman J.C. Watts. The elder Watts is oft quoted saying, in effect, that blacks becoming Republican makes as much sense as chickens befriending Colonel Sanders.

"Eventually, it's going to manifest," says Khalfani. "The contradiction is going to manifest itself in some way in your behavior, your mental stability."

It is just a theory, but one that stings.

Ashley Taylor, the old lawyer friend of Allen's, says that Allen would agree with him that the chicken analogy is just "pejorative and intentionally so."

Just as he told his mother he would, Allen dove into North Carolina Republican politics -- and into a world of controversy. In 1983, a year after college and a brief stint on another campaign, he joined the Helms reelection bid against Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt -- a bruising contest replete with racial scare tactics and innuendo.

In the heat of the campaign, Allen alleged that Hunt was associated with "the queers." He quickly apologized and called his comment an indiscretion.

But some 20 years later, he defended his remark. In his confirmation hearings for the 4th Circuit, he said he used the word "queers" to refer to people who were "odd, out of the ordinary, unusual" -- not people who were gay, according to a transcript.

In those same hearings, Allen also faced questions about his feelings toward Helms's infamous 1983 filibuster against the King holiday.

How could Allen, a black man, abide his boss's tactic? Not easily, according to Allen's 2003 statements. He spoke of his admiration and respect for King as a hero.

He said the filibuster was "the most difficult day for me in my life. . . . In fact, it was such a difficult time that I left. I left the campaign that day because I was so deeply impacted by what was going on here in Washington." (He didn't quit the campaign; he simply took the rest of the day off.)

It emerged during the 2003 hearings that Allen still believed that King was linked to the Communist Party -- just as Helms believed -- and that other black figures, like track star Jesse Owens or abolitionist Frederick Douglass, were as deserving of a national holiday.

Senate Democrats also found his record at HHS troubling.

As deputy secretary, Allen was accused by opponents of being an ideological warrior. Along with Tommy Thompson, his boss, Allen aggressively promoted the administration's faith-based agenda by redirecting grants away from groups that advocated condom use or safe sex, and toward groups that preached abstinence until marriage.

Bill Smith, vice president for public policy at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, called Allen a "hyper-moralizing" administrator.

When Thompson stepped down as HHS secretary, Allen did not get the top job. A lawyer friend with firsthand knowledge said that Allen felt marginalized when President Bush did not even consider him.

Instead, in January 2005, Allen was brought to the White House as a presidential adviser. His role was to oversee the implementation of Bush's policies, not to create them.

Praying for Him

The expansive lawns and treed lots of Cliff Pine Terrace and its large, luxurious homes are suggestive of ordered lives, blessed lives.

Inside the house with the tan brick front and the arched window over the entryway, Allen and Jack Simonds sat on the sofa and bowed their heads in prayer.

Simonds, the longtime friend from Durham, was distressed for Allen, feeling his pain.

"I just went for the purpose of coming alongside him, just as a friend," he says. "I had no intention of asking any questions. I've known them [the Allens] and I just wanted to reaffirm our friendship, no matter what. No matter what!"

Simonds did not ask Allen if the fraud charges were true. Allen would only discuss his predicament in the broadest terms, Simonds says.

"He acknowledged that this whole thing was very difficult and painful. And without having to say one way or the other what happened, he said, 'I sincerely regret any pain that may have resulted here for anybody.' "

Like the rest of Allen's concerned friends, Simonds has no idea what happened. "Whatever it is, this is my friend. I'm standing with him," he says.

He spent an hour with Allen and then they embraced like the old friends that they are when Simonds left. And as he drove away, Simonds kept praying, for the Lord's blessing for Allen and his family -- "no matter what."

Staff writer Michael Fletcher contributed to this report.

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