updated 4/5/2008 2:58:08 PM ET 2008-04-05T18:58:08

The Colombian government said Saturday it has fired Mark Penn's public relations firm after the chief campaign strategist for Democrat Hillary Clinton apologized for meeting with Colombian officials pushing a trade deal with the U.S.

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Colombian officials said they terminated their contract with lobbying and public relations giant Burson-Marsteller in response to a statement released Friday by Penn, the firm's chief executive, calling the meeting an "error in judgment." Clinton opposes the trade deal.

"The Colombian government considers this a lack of respect to Colombians, and finds this response unacceptable," government officials said in a news release. The government will continue its push for a free trade agreement with the United States, they added.

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that Penn had met with the Colombian ambassador March 31.

Penn regretful
Clinton advisers said the meeting was not connected to the campaign, but made clear the candidate was not happy to learn it. Penn later issued a statement expressing regrets.

"The meeting was an error in judgment that will not be repeated and I am sorry for it," he said. "The senator's well-known opposition to this trade deal is clear and was not discussed."

The Colombian government is trying to secure congressional passage of the agreement signed in 2006 by Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and the Bush administration.

According to Justice Department filings, Colombia agreed last year to pay Burson-Marsteller $300,000 to help "educate members of the U.S. Congress and other audiences" about the trade deal and secure continued U.S. funding for the $5 billion anti-narcotics program Plan Colombia.

Clinton and Barack Obama, her Democratic rival, oppose the deal. Clinton told the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO this week that the United States needs new trade policies before it has new trade deals. "That includes no trade deal with Colombia while violence against trade unionists continues in that country," she said.

Penn's political consulting firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland, has been paid $10.8 million so far by Clinton's campaign.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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