USA - VOTE 2008

Top Clinton aide quits over trade pact row

In a fresh blow to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, her chief strategist, Mark Penn, quit their White House campaign Sunday after revelations his PR firm was also working for the Colombian government.


ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico, April 6 (Reuters) - The top
campaign strategist to Sen. Hillary Clinton, under fire for his
meeting with a Colombian diplomat to discuss a free trade deal
that the presidential candidate opposes, quit his post on
Sunday, the campaign 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," Clinton's campaign manager, Maggie Williams, said in
a statement.

She said Penn and his polling firm Penn, Schoen and Berland
Associates Inc., would continue to provide polling and advice
to the campaign.

News of Penn's March 31 meeting with Colombian Ambassador
Carolina Barco Isakson, in which they discussed a free trade
deal, first surfaced on Friday.

Penn apologized for the meeting, which he said he held in
his separate role as CEO of Burson-Marsteller Worldwide, a
lobbying firm hired by the South American country to help win
the approval by the U.S. Congress of a free trade agreement
with the United States.

But the issue plagued the campaign of the New York senator,
who is vying with Illinois Sen. Barack Obama to become the
Democratic nominee to run against Republican John McCain in the
November election.

A Clinton campaign source said the candidate had been
"disappointed" over Penn's meeting.

Over the weekend, Penn decided he should step down, and
"Sen. Clinton agreed with him," the campaign source said.

Clinton was attending a private fundraiser in New Mexico on

The two Democratic candidates have sparred over the issue
of trade, with each questioning the other's credibility in
their pledges to renegotiate the North American Free Trade

Skepticism about free trade runs deep among the
working-class voters Clinton and Obama are courting, and both
Democratic candidates oppose the deal with Colombia.

The president of the powerful Teamsters union, James Hoffa,
said Penn's meeting with the Colombian officials undermined
Clinton's stance on labor and trade issues.

Obama also has said Clinton has close ties to lobbyists who
might wield undue influence shaping policies, should she become

The Penn controversy prompted an angry reaction from
Colombia, which took offense when he called the meeting "an
error in judgment."

The Colombian Embassy in Washington said it was ending its
contract with Burson-Marsteller, which it hired a year ago.

The Clinton campaign has asserted that Penn's meeting was
"independent of the campaign."

Penn served as President Bill Clinton's pollster and
political adviser and also worked on Hillary Clinton's
successful first campaign for the Senate. She was elected in
2000 and re-elected in 2006.

He had been blamed by critics for taking an aggressive tone
in Clinton's presidential bid, including trying to make an
issue of Obama's drug use as a young man, which the Illinois
senator has admitted.

The Clinton campaign was criticized earlier over Penn's
dual roles by labor leaders who said Burson-Marsteller was
involved in anti-union activities, including helping a
corporate client resist union organizing.

It has been reported that Penn and other members of
Clinton's top campaign staff did not get along and frequently
disagreed over tactics and strategies.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning