Clinton's top strategist steps aside - Fox29 WFLX TV, West Palm Beach, FL-news & weather

Clinton's top strategist steps aside

Sen. Hillary Clinton's chief presidential campaign strategist is quitting his post amid criticism of his public relations firm's contacts with the Colombian government over a pending free-trade deal, Clinton's campaign announced.

Mark Penn and his political consulting firm will continue to advise the New York senator's Democratic presidential bid, but Penn will give up his job as chief strategist, campaign manager Maggie Williams said.

"After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton campaign," Williams said.

Clinton did not answer reporters' questions about Penn's exit during a campaign stop in New Mexico on Sunday.

Penn is CEO of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller and is president of Penn, Schoen and Berland, his political consulting firm.

Friday, he acknowledged he had met with the Colombian ambassador to the United States earlier in the week in his role as Burson-Marsteller's chief to discuss the pending U.S.-Colombia trade pact, which Clinton has criticized on the campaign trail.

Penn called the meeting "an error in judgment that will not be repeated," and apologized. That prompted Colombia's government to fire the company Saturday, calling the remarks "a lack of respect to Colombians."

Clinton and top aides were sharply critical of rival Democrat Barack Obama in February when reports indicated that his top economic adviser had suggested to a Canadian official that Obama was not as supportive of changes to the North American Free Trade Agreement as the Illinois senator claimed to be on the campaign trail.

Penn said Friday that Clinton's opposition to the U.S.-Colombia pact, which the Bush administration is trying to push through Congress, "is clear and was not discussed" during his meeting with the ambassador. And Clinton spokesman Mo Elleithee said Penn's meeting was "not in any way done on behalf of the campaign."

But Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell -- a key Clinton backer in his state's April 22 primary -- suggested Sunday that Penn needed to go.

"I think you've got to make it very clear for someone who is a consultant, who you are representing and who you are not representing, and I would hope that Mr. Penn, when he talked to the Colombians, made that clear. And it doesn't sound to me like he did, and that's something the campaign should take into question," Rendell told NBC's "Meet the Press."

Sources in the Clinton campaign said that Penn realized this weekend that he needed to step aside, and that Clinton was disappointed that he had met with the Colombians.

Clinton's campaign had paid Penn, Schoen and Berland more than $6 million by the end of February and owed the firm $2.5 million, according to her campaign finance reports.

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