Image: Claude Allen
Leslie E. Kossoff  /  AP
Former White House adviser Claude Allen, left, leaves Montgomery County Circuit Court after pleading guilty to charges of theft on Friday.
updated 8/4/2006 5:53:35 PM ET 2006-08-04T21:53:35

A former top aide to President Bush 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 for the White House.

"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 the Target Corp. store chain 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 when the thefts occurred, 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. "These factors do not excuse my behavior ... but they were certainly a part of what happened."

‘Shame is not dead’
Allen apologized to his wife and friends, many of whom filled one side of the courtroom.

Allen was 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 Target store in Maryland with merchandise that authorities said he did not pay for.

He told the White House about the arrest but said it was the result of a mix-up with his credit cards. 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.

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