WASHINGTON — A former top White House aide was arrested on Thursday in the Maryland suburbs on charges that he stole merchandise from a number of retailers, the police in Montgomery County, Md., said Friday.
The former aide, Claude A. Allen, 45, was President Bush's top domestic policy adviser until resigning last month. Known as a rising conservative star, he previously served as deputy secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, and in 2003 the White House announced its intention to nominate him to a seat on the federal appeals court based in Richmond, Va. Democrats raised questions about the nomination, and it never came to a vote.
President Bush departs the White House Thursday, July 14, 2005, with his Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, center, and domestic advisor Claude Allen in Washington. President Bush on Saturday, March 11, 2006 said he was shocked to learn that Allen was charged with theft for allegedly receiving phony refunds at department stores. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds, File)
The police said Mr. Allen was seen on Jan. 2 leaving a department store in Gaithersburg, Md., with merchandise for which he had not paid. He was apprehended by a store employee and issued a misdemeanor citation for theft, said Lt. Eric Burnett, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department.
A statement issued on Friday by the police said store employees saw Mr. Allen fill a shopping bag with merchandise and put additional items into a shopping cart. He then sought, and received, a refund for some of the items and left the store without paying for others.
The Police Department said that as a result of an investigation it opened after the initial incident in January, it found that Mr. Allen had received refunds of more than $5,000 last year at stores like Target and Hecht's. Mr. Allen was arrested on Thursday and charged in connection with a series of allegedly fraudulent returns. The police said he was charged with a theft scheme over $500 and theft over $500.
"He would buy items, take them out to his car and return to the store with the receipt," the police said in the statement. "He would select the same items he had just purchased and then return them for a refund."
Mr. Allen was released on his own recognizance, the police said.
Mr. Allen's lawyer, Mallon Snyder, said: "We deny that Claude Allen took anything from a Target store or any other department store. We would welcome an opportunity to meet with Target store personnel to explain the confusion. Once they have an opportunity to examine the record, these charges will be dropped."
Mr. Snyder said that Mr. Allen had returned merchandise to the Target store on several occasions, but that "there was no impropriety."
Mr. Allen was the secretary of health and human resources for the State of Virginia when he was chosen by Mr. Bush in 2001 for the No. 2 job at the federal Health and Human Services Department. Last year, he was named as top domestic policy adviser in the White House.
Mr. Allen went to the White House after his nomination to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit stalled in the Senate. The nomination never came to a vote, in part because some Democrats raised questions about comments he had made in 1984, while working for Senator Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina. He had been quoted as saying that Mr. Helms's opponent that year was vulnerable because his campaign could be "linked with the queers." He later apologized and said he had not intended his words to be a slur against gay men and lesbians.
The White House announced on Feb. 9 that Mr. Allen was resigning as Mr. Bush's domestic policy adviser.
Asked about the charge against Mr. Allen, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, said, "If it is true, no one would be more shocked and more outraged than the president."
Mr. McClellan said Mr. Allen reported the initial incident to Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, on Jan. 2, the day it occurred. But, he said, Mr. Card did not inform the president until early February because Mr. Allen had said the incident resulted from a misunderstanding.
Mr. McClellan gave this chronology: On Jan. 3, Mr. Allen discussed the incident with Harriet E. Miers, the White House counsel, and told her that he had been returning merchandise and there was confusion with his credit cards because he had moved many times. He assured Ms. Miers that the matter would be cleared up.
Mr. McClellan said the White House gave Mr. Allen "the benefit of the doubt" because he had gone through extensive background checks before his judicial nomination.
Within a few days of the incident, Mr. McClellan said, Mr. Allen told Mr. Card and Ms. Miers that he was thinking of leaving the White House to spend time with his family. But Mr. Allen decided to stay for a while because he was working on domestic initiatives for the State of the Union address, which Mr. Bush delivered on Jan. 31.
William A. Pierce, a former spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he was "stunned, absolutely stunned" to hear of the arrest.
"I think a great deal of Claude," Mr. Pierce said. "He served ably as deputy secretary. He was, in effect, the chief operating officer of the department. He made sure that the machinery of the agency worked well. Many regulations came through him."
A neighbor reached by phone on Friday night said that Mr. Allen belonged to the Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Md., and moved into the neighborhood along with several other members of the church. County records show that Mr. Allen bought his home in October 2005 for $958,300, along with his wife, Jannese.
David Sanger contributed reporting for this article.
© 2006 New York Times