NEW YORK: Burson-Marsteller CEO Mark Penn stepped down as chief strategist for the Hillary Clinton campaign April 6 after it was revealed that Penn, representing Burson, met with Colombia government officials to work on a free trade issue at odds with the Clinton campaign's stance.
After Penn apologized for the March 31 meeting, describing it in an April statement as an “error in judgment,” the Colombian government announced on April 5 that it had terminated the contract that the Colombian Embassy in Washington had signed with Burson in March 2007.
That contract was valued at $300,000 and involved providing communications advice and media relations for the ambassador and other embassy officials regarding the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement – which the Bush administration recently submitted to Congress for approval - and Plan Colombia, the long-running military effort to stop the drug trade.
"After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as chief strategist of the Clinton Campaign; Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign," Maggie Williams, Clinton campaign manager, said in a statement released Sunday.
The Wall Street Journal first reported on Friday that Penn personally met with the Colombian officials to help create messaging for the trade agreement proposal.
Penn's dual role with the Clinton campaign and Burson had caused some controversy throughout the campaign, ramping up recently as a number of political media outlets started writing articles about Penn's work at Burson.
Penn publicly denied any conflict of interest, claiming he had recused himself from any Burson work that was at odds with Clinton's policies. In an interview with PRWeek a few weeks ago for the magazine's annual Agency Business Report, Penn said that his work for the Clinton campaign was not viewed negatively by any Burson client.
“If I and the people at Penn & Schoen are in the middle of big events, I think they just see it as useful additional skills that don't have any impact in any way,” Penn said.
The AP reported that the Clinton campaign has compensated Penn, Schoen & Berland -- Penn's consulting firm -- $10.8 million since the start of the campaign.