Scotland’s first minister tells an inquiry that she had no motive or desire to “get” her predecessor.
Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she had no reason to want to “get” Alex Salmond as she dismissed claims of a plot against him as “absurd”.
The first minister was speaking at the inquiry into her government’s unlawful handling of harassment complaints against her predecessor.
She apologised to the two women who had made the complaints, saying they were let down by a “very serious error”.
But she rejected much of Mr Salmond’s version of events.
Mr Salmond has previously claimed several people within the SNP and Scottish government – including Ms Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive – were involved in a “deliberate, prolonged, malicious and concerted effort” to damage his reputation, even to the extent of attempting to have him imprisoned.
Ms Sturgeon said she had “thought often” about the impact of the past three years on Mr Salmond, but said Mr Salmond had shown no sign of thinking of others.
She said she had watched Mr Salmond give evidence to the inquiry committee last Friday and had found herself “searching for any sign at all that he recognised how difficult this had been for others too”.
The first minister added: “First of all, for women who believed his behaviour towards them was inappropriate.
“But also for those of us who have campaigned alongside him, worked with him, cared for him, and consider him a friend – who now stand unfairly accused of plotting against him.”
Ms Sturgeon acknowledged that Mr Salmond had been cleared of all of the sexual assault allegations against him by a High Court jury.
But she added: “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 even a simple acknowledgement of that.
“I can only hope that in private, the reality might be different.”
Ms Sturgeon said the moment Mr Salmond showed her a letter detailing the complaints against him was “a moment I will never forget”.
She said: “Although he denied the allegations, he gave me an account of one of the incidents, the complaints, of which he said he had apologised at the time.
“What he described constituted in my view deeply inappropriate behaviour on his part.”
She said the female complainers had come forward “of their own free will”, and that while some “evidently did support each other” this was not evidence of a conspiracy.
Ms Sturgeon told the cross-party committee of MSPs that Mr Salmond had been one of the “closest people to me in my entire life”.
She added: “I would never have wanted to ‘get’ Alex Salmond – I would never, ever have wanted any of this to happen. I had no motive, intention or desire to ‘get’ Alex Salmond.”
The inquiry is examining the Scottish government’s botched handling of sexual harassment complaints made against Mr Salmond by two female civil servants.
Ms Sturgeon is facing calls to quit from Scottish Conservatives after new documents released on Tuesday evening raised further questions about her involvement in the saga.
The government published emails showing it continued a doomed legal fight with Mr Salmond despite its lawyers advising it was likely to lose.
It ended up paying Mr Salmond’s legal fees of more than £500,000, on top of its own costs, after the investigation was found to have been unlawful and “tainted with bias”.
Further evidence from two other witnesses also called into question Ms Sturgeon’s account of meetings she had with Mr Salmond and Geoff Aberdein, his former chief of staff.
Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry the meetings were not recorded because of her desire to “protect the independence and confidentiality” of the complaints process.
And she said she did not agree with Mr Salmond’s assertion that there had been a “shared understanding” of what the meeting in Ms Sturgeon’s home was to be about.
Ms Sturgeon was questioned at length about claims the name of a complainer was passed to Mr Salmond while the meeting between the two first ministers was being set up.
Mr Salmond said the name had been revealed to his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein, and two other former SNP staffers – Kevin Pringle and Duncan Hamilton – have written to the committee to support his account.
However Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry that she had been given assurances that “it did not happen in the way that has been described”.
She said she believed that Mr Salmond was already aware of the identity of the two complainers, and that Mr Hamilton and Mr Pringle were not present at the meeting in question.
She said she was prevented from going into more detail due to legal constraints, but added: “I understand evidence has been given to this committee that denies that allegation, and I believe there has been an offer of confidential evidence as well.”
As Ms Sturgeon was speaking, Mr Salmond’s spokesman released a statement saying he had lodged a formal complaint with Scotland’s top civil servant, Leslie Evans, about “the conduct of the official who is alleged to have breached civil service rules by disclosing the name of a complainant.”
One of the most serious allegations levelled at Nicola Sturgeon’s administration is that a senior Scottish government official gave the name of a woman who complained about Alex Salmond’s behaviour to his former chief of staff, Geoff Aberdein.
Mr Salmond’s QC Duncan Hamilton and another of his former advisers, Kevin Pringle, have backed up his account that Mr Aberdein told them this happened in a private exchange with a member of the first minister’s team in early March 2018.
Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser – who is himself a lawyer – presented this as corroboration of a potentially criminal disclosure.
However, Nicola Sturgeon said that while she did not wish to question the sincerity of these accounts, this evidence amounted to hearsay because neither Mr Hamilton nor Mr Pringle were giving a first hand account of events.
The first minister said only Geoff Aberdein and the senior official in her team were able to do that. The senior official has specifically denied releasing the name of a complainer.
Ms Sturgeon went on to say that Mr Salmond knew the names of both complainers when she met him on 2 April 2018 – because he had apologised to one about his behaviour and had worked out the identity of the other by trawling the Scottish government’s Flickr account.
The implication here is that Mr Salmond did not need any assistance from someone in her team to identify those who raised the original harassment complaints against him.
Mr Salmond used his evidence session last week to accuse his former protege of repeatedly misleading parliament, and said he had “no doubt” she had breached the ministerial code.
A separate inquiry headed by Irish lawyer James Hamilton is specifically looking at whether this was the case.
Ms Sturgeon told the inquiry: “Two women were failed, and taxpayer’s money was lost – I deeply regret that.”
She said the government had made a “very serious mistake” in how it had applied a newly-devised procedure to the complaints against Mr Salmond.
But she has repeatedly denied breaching the code – which sets out how government ministers are expected to behave.
The first minister also insisted that the complaints procedure was not put in place to target Mr Salmond, as some of his supporters have claimed.
She told the committee that she was not aware of any allegations or concerns about sexually inappropriate behaviour on the part of Mr Salmond until a media enquiry from Sky News was made in November 2017.
She also said no complaints had been brought to her which she could have acted on when she was deputy first minister to Mr Salmond.
Ms Sturgeon added: “Have I for my entire working life been aware of problems of sexual harassment and sexism and misogyny? You bet I have.
“But to say things were brought to me or that there were things I could have acted on – that’s not the same thing.”
She also insisted that details of the allegations against Mr Salmond that were leaked to the Daily Record newspaper – which broke the story in August 2018 – had not come from her or from anyone acting on her authority or instruction.
She said she had “nothing to gain” from the complaints becoming public, adding: “Since I became aware of what Alex Salmond was facing, the thought of it becoming public and having to comment on it horrified me – it made me feel physically sick.”