Clinton owes ex-strategist $2.5 million

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The latest campaign-finance reports show that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign owes about $2.5 million to the firm of Mark J. Penn, who quit as chief strategist after embarrassing the campaign and left a leadership shake-up in his wake.

The debt persisted on the campaign’s ledger for February, according to reports filed for the March 20 deadline, despite payments of more than $3 million to Mr. Penn’s polling firm that month, according to the most recent campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Mr. Penn, who has long been a source of internal strife at the campaign, stepped down Sunday amid revelations he worked to promote a trade deal with Colombia that the New York Democrat opposes. The Clinton campaign did not return several phone calls yesterday seeking to ask questions about the debt’s status.

The money he is owed is more than a quarter of the campaign’s $8.7 million in outstanding debt, according to finance reports filed last month, which show the campaign having total receipts of$174 million with $33 million cash on hand.

Democratic presidential front-runner Sen. Barack Obama, who has collected a total of $197 million in contributions, had nearly $39 million cash on hand and about $625,000 of debt, according to campaign finance reports.

The Clinton campaign — which pays Mr. Penn through his business, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates — doled out at least $10 million to the firm since the race started last year. He will continue to collect paychecks as an adviser and pollster for Mrs. Clinton, the campaign said.

“Certainly, the unpaid bills create a continuing relationship,” said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics.

Mr. Ritsch said neither the debt nor the hefty payments to Mr. Penn’s firm raised red flags, but he added that the center has not studied the issue.

“The amount of money that they have billed would not appear to be unusual for a consultant working on media polling and other aspects of a major presidential campaign,” he said.

Clinton campaign pollster Geoff Garin and spokesman Howard Wolfson took over the campaign’s strategic message team, said campaign manager Maggie Williams.

Mr. Penn’s exit rattled the campaign as Mrs. Clinton fights for the big win she needs in Pennsylvania’s April 22 primary to close the delegate gap on Mr. Obama and continue to raise doubts about the Illinois senator’s electability.

But the Clinton campaign has a deep bench of talent from which to replace Mr. Penn before the candidate loses her footing in the race, said Democratic political consultant Donna Brazile, who advised both Bill Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns.

“When it comes to political experience [and] battle-tested advisers, she has people on her team that have scars, scratches and shovels,” she said. “Make no mistake, Clinton will be well-prepared for the final stretch and then some — if necessary.”

The Clinton strategist’s downfall began with a Wall Street Journal report Friday that Mr. Penn, who is chief executive of public relations heavyweight Burson-Marsteller, met with Colombian officials to advise the lobbying push on a free-trade agreement that the U.S. had signed with the South American nation.

Mrs. Clinton, who is courting union voters with a protectionist platform, has called for a trade-deal freeze.

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