April 6, 2008 / 11:22 PM / 11 years ago

Hillary Clinton strategist quits amid Colombia trade flap

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (Reuters) - A top campaign aide to Sen. Hillary Clinton, under fire for meeting with a Colombian diplomat to discuss a free trade deal that the presidential candidate opposes, quit his post on Sunday, the campaign said.

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) addresses a town hall meeting at Northstar-Neptune Aviation at Missoula International Airport in Missoula, Montana, April 6, 2008. REUTERS/Anne Medley

“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 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 held in his separate role as chief executive officer 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.

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 politically powerful Teamsters union, James Hoffa, said on Saturday that Penn’s meeting with the Colombian officials undermined Clinton’s stance on labor and trade issues.

“How can we trust that a President Hillary Clinton would stand strong against this trade deal when her top advisor is being paid by Colombia to promote it?” he asked in a statement.

Obama also has criticized Clinton saying she has close ties to lobbyists who might undue influence shaping policies, should she become president.

The controversy prompted an angry reaction from Colombia, which took offense at Penn’s statement in which he called the meeting “an error in judgment.”

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

The Clinton campaign has asserted that Penn’s meeting was “independent of the campaign.”

The two Democratic candidates have been sparring over the issue of trade, with each questioning the other’s credibility in their pledges to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Editing by Chris Wilson

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