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Merrill Lynch's

(MER)

research chief resigned amid a cloud of controversy over the credibility of Wall Street research practices.

Robert McCann, 44, had been at the global investment-banking firm for 21 years, having held the job at the research division since October 2001. He was appointed to the position just months before a probe into questionable research practices was launched. Prior to his appointment, he was the chief operating officer of the firm's investment banking business.

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Merrill Lynch recently was fined $100 million to settle New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer's probe into whether Wall Street firms had doled out favorable research to drum up lucrative investment-banking contracts with companies.

McCann joins former Vice Chairman Jerome Kenney and Chief Technology Officer John McKinley in heading out the door. The co-president of global markets and investment banking, Paul D. Roy, also left the firm to pursue an outside venture. McCann is expected to stay until March 1. A successor will be announced "shortly," according to an internal email announcing the departure.

"Bob has brought outstanding leadership, a keen intellect and a steady hand to the task of restructuring and refocusing Global Research," said Merrill Lynch Chairman Dave Komansky and Chief Executive Stan O'Neal in a message to employees. "In the face of significant challenges, Bob skillfully led the implementation of new policies aimed at reinforcing the independence and objectivity of the company's research. Most important, he helped reassure investor clients of Merrill Lynch's commitment to providing the highest quality research available anywhere."

McCann said in an email to employees, "Now is a logical time for me to step back and think about what I want to do in the next chapter of my life and career."

Merrill Lynch shares fell 30 cents, to $33.46, in midday trading.