By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2006
Former White House adviser Claude A. Allen took responsibility yesterday for shoplifting from stores in Montgomery County last year, saying that the months leading up to the thefts were marked by huge stress and sleep deprivation.
Allen, 45, who came from humble roots, put himself through law school and held several prominent government jobs before becoming President Bush's top aide on domestic policy in 2005, wept in court after thanking relatives and friends for standing by him. He pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor theft.
"Stealing is not something that I ever thought that I would ever do, and I did," he said. "I accept full responsibility for my actions and what I did. I am intensely, immensely sorry for that and very remorseful for the harm that I've caused so many. Something did go very wrong. I lost perspective and failed to restrain myself."
His wife cited Hurricane Katrina as one of the stressful issues that Allen was grappling with last fall.
Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Eric M. Johnson sentenced Allen to probation before judgment -- a disposition available to first offenders in which the judge acknowledges the guilty plea but keeps it off the defendant's criminal record. If Allen completes his two years of supervised probation satisfactorily, his record could be expunged.
Johnson did not sentence Allen to jail but ordered him to reimburse $850 to Target for stolen merchandise, imposed a $500 fine and demanded that he perform 40 hours of community service. Several Rockville lawyers not involved in the case said the outcome is not unusual for a first-time offender charged with misdemeanor theft.
Assistant State's Attorney John D. Lalos said prosecutors didn't believe that Allen deserved probation before judgment because he shoplifted repeatedly. They wanted him found guilty of misdemeanor theft.
Allen's attorneys sought probation before judgment in part because it might have prevented attorney grievance committees in the three jurisdictions where Allen is a member of the bar from imposing serious sanctions or revoking his license.
The judge said he thought Allen was "legitimately remorseful," adding that he was confident that Allen would stay out of trouble.
"I think it goes without saying that the humiliation, the shame, the embarrassment, the hurt that you have brought upon yourself, upon your family and friends -- if that doesn't deter you, then there's nothing this court or any other court could do to deter you," Johnson said.
Allen arrived at court with his wife and about a dozen supporters. He sat in the gallery holding his wife's hand waiting for his case to be called. His wife, Jannese, reading from a prepared statement, described her husband, whom she met two decades ago, as an accomplished, humble and upstanding man.
"When Claude was arrested, I mourned, for I knew this was not the man I had married," Jannese Allen said.
She said the months that led up to the thefts were trying for Allen.
"In addition to the demanding household of four young children, we lived out of storage boxes in a friend's basement," Jannese Allen said. "Claude's 14-hour workdays became more demanding after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina."
Montgomery County police charged Allen in March with theft of goods worth more than $500 and conspiracy to commit theft -- felonies punishable each by up to 15 years in prison. Detectives said that he conducted at least 25 fraudulent refund transactions from October to January.
Police said Allen would walk into a store, charge items to credit cards and take the items to his car. He would then return to the store, pick up identical items and seek refunds for them. Police said several of his fraudulent transactions were recorded by store surveillance cameras.
Yesterday's hearing provided some insight into Allen's state of mind last fall, but he and his attorneys declined to elaborate on why he acted so recklessly.
"A lot of people face stress, and they don't do anything like that," said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, who heads the school's African American Leadership Institute. "There's still that why out there. The psychological factor is the factor I'm missing in all of this. That's the tantalizing factor."
Political consultants said Allen will likely keep a low profile in the near future but might recover from this scandal.
"There are hundreds and hundreds of Washington officials who get in trouble and ultimately earn their way back and become public figures again," said political consultant and pollster Keith Haller, president of Potomac Inc. "For the most part, the public is relatively forgiving."
Allen, who was born in Pennsylvania and attended Duke Law School, made his debut in politics working for Republican legislators. He was a deputy secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services and was nominated to a federal appeals court seat in 2003.
He joined the White House during Bush's second term and abruptly resigned from his $160,000-a-year job in February, shortly after being charged with misdemeanor theft. Detectives arrested him on the felony charges when he went to court to fight the misdemeanor accusation.
Johnson, who was more warm than stern in delivering his sentence, said he is fairly confident that Allen won't return to a courtroom as a defendant.
"You are a classic example and an enlightening and fresh example of the fact that shame is not dead," Johnson said. "I see a number of young people that come before the court that are not ashamed of what they did, and that's a tragedy. But clearly you're ashamed, as well you should have been."
After court was adjourned, Allen stepped back into the gallery and embraced his pastor. He wept quietly as the pastor whispered into his ear.