Nicola Sturgeon has called Alex Salmond’s claim that there is a plot against him “absurd” as she strongly denied intervening in an investigation into sexual harassment complaints against her predecessor.
The first minister is appearing before a Holyrood committee fighting for her job, after opposition MSPs called for her to resign on Tuesday night as previously secret legal advice relating to the saga was made public.
She insisted: “I would never have wanted to ‘get’ Alex Salmond”, and said she had “no motive, intention, (or) desire” for such action against her predecessor.
The FM said some of the complaints made against Salmond were “shocking” and his behaviour “was not always appropriate”.
She also refused to apologise, telling MSPs her predecessor has refused to do as much.
“I do not think it’s reasonable to ask me to apologise for the behaviour of Alex Salmond,” she said. “I think the only person who should apologise for behaviour on his part – which he was asked to do on Friday and failed to do – is Alex Salmond.”
Salmond won a judicial review of the government’s complaints procedure, which had been set up in the wake of Me Too in 2018 to allow older allegations to be investigated – but was botched, with an investigator into Salmond’s case found to be already in contact with the complainants.
Salmond was awarded more than £500,000 in costs, and acquitted of sexual offences at a subsequent criminal trial.
The documents showed that lawyers had repeatedly raised concerns about whether the Scottish government could win the judicial review – despite which it continued with the case.
Sturgeon has been under pressure to explain her contact with Salmond’s chief of staff on March 29, 2018 – something she later told MSPs she had forgotten about.
Her governmental meetings are supposed to be formally recorded, but this one was not. She has insisted the meetings were to discuss SNP business, rather than anything to do with the government.
She has also faced criticism for meeting Salmond at her home on April 2. She said that she did not reveal this contact with her former mentor as she did not want to influence the investigation.
Describing that meeting, she said while he denied the complaints against him he gave his account of an incident.
Sturgeon told MSPs: “What he described constituted in my view deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part, perhaps a reason why that moment is embedded so strongly in my mind.”
She said she did not “immediately record the April 2 meeting” as she did not want it to become public and risk “breaching the confidentiality of the process”.
She added she had no intention of intervening in the investigation process and did not intervene, saying to do so would have been an abuse of her role.
The change of rules to allow historic abuses to be investigated has been seen by some as targeting Salmond.
But under questioning about why the policy was changed, Sturgeon said it was “absolutely right at that time for my government to review its processes, consider any weaknesses and gaps in them and put in place a procedure that would allow complaints, including those of an historic nature, to be investigated”.
Sturgeon said it had been right to launch the investigation, saying: “An individual’s profile, status or connections should not result in complaints of this nature being ignored or swept under the carpet. That in this case it was a former first minister does not change that.”
Salmond has called for the resignation of a number of figures in Sturgeon’s inner circle and insists his former protege has broken the ministerial code.
But Sturgeon said: “I feel I must rebut the absurd suggestion that anyone acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond. That claim is not based in any fact.
“What happened is this and it is simple.
“A number of women made complaints against Alex Salmond. The government, despite the mistake it undoubtedly made, tried to do the right thing.
“As first minister I refused to follow the age-old pattern of allowing a powerful man to use his status and connections to get what he wants.
“The police conducted an independent criminal investigation.
“The crown office considered there was a case to answer.
“Now this committee is considering what happened and why.”
Sturgeon also used her appearance to attack Salmond, saying that his behaviour in the past toward women has been “deeply inappropriate” and that he has failed to express regret or apologise during his testimony.
She added: “While the government made mistakes… there is nothing here that the government has to hide.”
Insisting the complaints procedure was “lawful”, she admitted an error in the appointment of the investigating officer, who had prior contact with the two women who complained.
The FM was also questioned about a claim that a senior member of her team had leaked the name of one of the complainers to Salmond’s former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein, who passed it to Salmond.
Sturgeon said: “I am not accepting that that happened, therefore I am clearly not accepting that was authorised.”
She said her assumption was Salmond had worked out the names on his own “through his own investigations”.
A statement from Salmond’s spokesperson said he has lodged a formal complaint in relation to this matter.
He said: “Mr Salmond has lodged a formal complaint with the permanent secretary to the Scottish government under the civil service code, on the conduct of the official who is alleged to have breached civil service rules, by disclosing the name of a complainant in the Scottish government process.”
Sturgeon was also asked about a leak of the Scottish government investigation to the Daily Record newspaper in 2018, which broke the news of the allegations.
She said the leak “didn’t come from me, or anyone acting on my instruction or request”.
Sturgeon, who served as deputy leader of the SNP under Salmond for some 10 years, said that being at the committee “makes me really sad”.
She said: “In all the legitimate considerations of this, sometimes the human elements of this situation are lost. Alex spoke on Friday about what a nightmare the last couple of years have been for him, and I don’t doubt that.
“I have thought often about the impact on him. He was someone I cared about for a long time.
“And maybe that’s why on Friday I found myself searching for any sign that he recognised how difficult this has been for others too. First and foremost to the women who believed his behaviour to be inappropriate.
“But also to those who had campaigned with him, worked with him, cared for him and considered him a friend and now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.
“That he was acquitted by a jury of criminal conduct is beyond question. But I know, just from what he told me, that his behaviour was not always appropriate.
“And yet across six hours of testimony, there was not a single word of regret, reflection or a simple acknowledgment of that. I can only hope in private the reality might be different.”
The Holyrood committee is investigating the Scottish government’s handling of sex harassment complaints against the ex-first minister. A separate investigation is examining whether Sturgeon breached the ministerial code.