There's right, there's wrong, and then there's shoplifting from Target

The president's $161,000-a-year chief domestic policy advisor is charged in a theft scheme.

Published March 12, 2006 12:51AM (EST)

It is sometimes tempting for liberals to think that militant religious conservatives are driven by some kind of underlying neurosis. Such a theory, condescending as it is, helps explain their obsession with other people's sex lives and their single-minded quest to impose their conception of biblical virtue by fiat. Thoughtful progressives often struggle to transcend such dismissive, self-serving analysis. But people like Claude Allen make it damn hard.

Allen, the first African-American aide to notorious civil rights foe Jesse Helms, was one of the religious right's favorite Bush administration officials -- Focus on the Family called him "one of the staunchest family advocates in government." He served first as the deputy secretary at the Department of Health and Human Services, where he was the administration's chief advocate of abstinence-only sex education. In 2003, Bush nominated him to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, but Democrats filibustered him, citing, among other things, his attacks on former North Carolina Gov. James Hunt, Helms' 1984 Senate challenger, for having links to "the queers" and "radical feminists." Unable to get him on the court, Bush instead made Allen his chief domestic policy advisor in 2005.

Claude Allen likes to talk about virtue and absolute standards. "I am proud to be part of an administration that is not afraid to say what is right and what is wrong," he said at an abstinence conference in 2005. Educating kids about condoms, he said on another occasion, is "like telling your child, 'Don't use the car,' but then leaving the keys in the Lamborghini and saying, 'But if you do, buckle up.'"

How rich, then, to learn that this pious scold appears to be a compulsive thief. Allen submitted his resignation last month, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. But as the Chicago Tribune's Washington blog, the Swamp, says, "It appears now that he may have been seeking more time with his defense attorney." Allen, it seems, has been perpetrating petty scams at department stores, netting thousands of dollars.

The sordid story unspooled after Allen was caught at a Target in Gaithersburg, Md., allegedly stealing merchandise and then trying to return some of it for a refund. According to a press release from Maryland's Montgomery County Police Department:

"The Target loss prevention manager contacted Montgomery County Police and, through the police investigation, it was learned that Allen had been receiving refunds in an amount exceeding $5,000 during last year. Some of the fraudulent returns were made at Target stores and some at Hecht's stores. He would buy items, take them out to his car, and return to the store with the receipt. He would select the same items he had just purchased, and then return them for a refund. Allen is known to have conducted approximately 25 of these types of refunds, having the money credited to his credit cards.

"Throughout 2005, he obtained refunds for items ranging from clothing, a Bose theater system, stereo equipment and [a] photo printer to items valued only at $2.50."

Why would Allen do this? A former lawyer at the ultra-powerful firm of Baker & Botts, he has plenty of money -- according to the New York Times, in October 2005 he bought a new house for $958,300. But the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention explains that for "almost all non-professional shoplifters, stealing from stores is basically a reflection of a person's ability (or inability) to cope with a multitude of situations in his or her life ... In addition to feeling good, shoplifters quickly observe this 'high' temporarily eliminates their feelings of anger, frustration, depression or other unhappiness in their life. Realizing how easy it is to get that 'high' feeling, they are pulled toward doing it again ... 'just one more time' ... and their addiction begins to develop."

Like his fellow ideologues William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh, then, Allen seems to be a sick man. One wonders whether, after this, he'll still push an approach to AIDS and STD prevention based entirely on the impulse-controlling powers of faith.

This item has been corrected since it was first posted.

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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