WASHINGTON -- During President Bush's State of the Union address, Claude Allen had a coveted box seat as a guest of Laura Bush. He sat there with an embarrassing secret.
For weeks as he worked side by side with Bush on policy that would be included in that Jan. 31 address, he carried the secret that was about to threaten the reputation he built during a swiftly rising career in Republican government.
What Allen knew and apparently didn't tell others at the White House was how much legal trouble he might be in. Police say Allen was caught trying to get refunds on items he hadn't bought at a Target store in Washington's Maryland suburbs, just 30 days before the State of the Union address he was helping to craft.
White House officials say they didn't know the truth about the extent of the allegations until last week, after Allen, 45, had resigned from his $161,000-a-year job as Bush's domestic policy adviser. The felony charges have shocked those who knew Allen and considered him completely devoted to God, family, and country.
''Nothing from my personal experiences with him would ever have led me to question his integrity, his morals, his honesty," said Alex Azar, the Health and Human Services Department deputy secretary who worked with Allen during all five years of the Bush presidency. ''He was always regarded as someone with real integrity and somebody with a keen moral compass."
Allen was born in Philadelphia with a twin brother, then was raised in a Democratic family in a poor Washington neighborhood. In college, he says he became a born-again Christian and a Republican. He rode those ideologies up through positions in state and federal government, all the way to the White House, where last year he became one of the highest-ranking blacks to serve in the West Wing.
Allen was a conservative who supported a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and backed the right of Christian military chaplains to mention Jesus in prayers at publicly funded institutions. He drew the ire of liberals but impressed those he worked with for being a humble team player who was helpful to staff on all levels. Some of his co-workers, sorry to see him leave, cried at his going-away party, held last month in the West Wing.
His explanation that he wanted to spend more time with his family made sense to those who knew him -- he contended that he barely saw his two sons and two daughters, ages 2 to 14, with the long hours serving the president. Allen and his Barbados-born wife, Jannese, recently moved to a nearly $1 million home in the Maryland suburbs to be closer to their church, the nondenominational Covenant Life.
His wife home schools their children, and Allen told people that having the family close to the church's resources was more important than the 10 miles it would add to his commute to the White House.
In his time of trouble, Allen has asked the church's pastoral team to care for him, senior pastor Joshua Harris wrote in a statement on the church's website. ''Our concern is for his soul," Harris wrote. ''Our desire -- and Claude shares this -- is for him to walk with humility and integrity."
Friends say Allen spent hours at Covenant Life on Sunday, the day after Bush said publicly that he was shocked and deeply disappointed to learn that Allen may not have told officials at the White House the truth about what happened.
Allen was charged with returning merchandise he didn't buy at a Target store on Jan. 2. White House officials said he told the chief of staff and presidential counsel about the charges within 24 hours, but he insisted it was all a credit-card mix-up due to confusion over his recent address change and would be cleared up soon.
Police said that on at least 25 occasions, Allen made fraudulent returns, worth at least $5,000 in all, for items such as a Bose theater system, a Kodak printer, and a men's jacket. They said his scam was to buy items, take them to his car, then return to the store with his receipt. He would select the same items, then take them to the store return desk and show the receipt from the first purchase to get a refund.
His lawyer has denied the charges.