Nicola Sturgeon has described claims of a plot against her predecessor Alex Salmond as “absurd”.
The First Minister is giving evidence to MSPs investigating the Scottish Government’s botched investigation into harassment allegations against Salmond.
The failed legal case in 2018 eventually cost taxpayers around £600,000.
Sturgeon rejected suggestions the government did not take the advice of senior lawyers in conceding Salmond’s judicial review petition.
Committee member, Scottish Tories MSP Murdo Fraser, highlighted some advice which warned “the trumpeting would be far louder” if the case proceeded to a written judgment, saying the “least worst option would be to concede the petition”.
Sturgeon said: “The charge that has been made against me is that I wilfully allowed a judicial review to proceed against the legal advice, therefore I broke the ministerial code.
“With respect, as you now know, I was acting in accordance with the views of the law officers, not against.
“We thought we had a stateable case, counsel was not arguing at that stage – that changed later – we thought we had credible arguments to make, and we were also taking account of that wider interest in getting a determination on the many grounds of challenge that Alex Salmond had made to both the procedure and its application.”
Sturgeon opened the hearing by apologising to two women who made complaints against Salmond, admitting they were let down by a “very serious error”.
Salmond claimed in his evidence to the inquiry on Friday that there had been a “malicious scheme” to damage his reputation.
But Sturgeon dismissed his claims during her opening statement to the Holyrood committee on Wednesday morning.
She 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.”
She later added: “I trusted him and I am not going to apologise for the behaviour of somebody else.
“I do not think it is reasonable for me to apologise for the behaviour of Alex Salmond.”
Sturgeon earlier denied any suggestion she had wanted to “get” Salmond, who she described as a “tough and challenging” person to work for.
SNP MSP Alasdair Allan said some have claimed the government’s revised harassment procedure, which were also applied to former ministers was “created to get Alex Salmond”.
But Sturgeon said: “It wasn’t. Absolutely, emphatically not. Alex Salmond has been, and I have said this many times, one of the closest people to me in my entire life.
“I would never have wanted to get Alex Salmond, and I would never, ever have wanted any of this to happen. If I could have, short of brushing complaints under the carpet which would have been wrong to me, if I could turn the clock back and find legitimate ways that none of this would ever have happened, then I would.
“Alex Salmond has been for most of my life, since I was about 20, 21 years old, not just a very close political colleague, a friend, someone in my younger days who I looked up to and revered.
“I had no motive, intention, desire to get Alex Salmond.”
Sturgeon was asked about the claim that a senior member of her team had leaked the name of one of the complainers to Geoff Aberdein, who had previously been Salmond’s chief of staff.
Labour’s Jackie Bailie pressed the First Minister on the issue, saying in an “extraordinary breach of confidentiality” Mr Aberdein had passed the details to Salmond.
Baillie said in any other position doing this would be a “sackable offence” as she demanded to know if the First Minister or the Permanent Secretary had authorised this.
Sturgeon said: “I am not accepting that that happened, therefore I am clearly not accepting that was authorised.”
The First Minister accepted this was a “matter of contention”.
She added: “Certainly in relation to one of the complainants Alex Salmond was pretty clear he had found out through investigations of Scottish Government social media accounts he had found out who that was.
“And in relation to the other one, and this is the bit I am perhaps speculating on, it must have been the case when he got that letter, because he knew about the incident because he had apologised to the person.
“So my assumption would be that he would have known that without anybody having to tell him. And I know from what he told me he found out the identity of the other one through his own investigations.”
Sturgeon told the inquiry that Salmond’s account to her of his “deeply inappropriate behaviour” was a “moment in my life that I will never forget”, as she maintained she did not intervene in the Scottish Government’s investigation into her predecessor.
During the evidence, Salmond released a statement saying he was making an complaint about officials revealing a complainer’s name.
It read: “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 told the committee the details of complaints against Salmond were “shocking” and his behaviour “was not always appropriate”.
Describing a meeting with Salmond in her home on April 2, 2018, she said, while he denied the complaints against him, he gave his account of the incident which “he said he had apologised for at the time”.
Sturgeon has also been accused of breaching the ministerial code over the Salmond affair – which would put her under huge pressure to resign if proved.
A separate investigation is taking place into the code breach allegations, which Sturgeon denies.
It’s alleged she was told about the complaints against Salmond during a meeting with Mr Aberdein on March 29 – but originally told parliament she found out during the April 2 meeting.
Sturgeon told the inquiry it was only when she read a letter from the Permanent Secretary on April 2 that she knew “beyond any doubt”.
She said: “Any general concerns or suspicions I might have had actually became detailed and actual knowledge, of the fact there were two complaints, they were by civil servants, they were being investigated under that procedure and what the nature of that complaint was.
“Ahead of April 2 I had an awareness there was a complaint, no doubt I had suspicions about what the nature of that might be, but that is what it was, a general awareness, a suspicion, that no doubt I had all sorts of theories for in my head.
“But it was reading the Permanent Secretary’s letter, that he showed me on April 2, that gave me the knowledge and the detail behind that knowledge.”
Salmond was cleared of a string of sexual assaults following a trial at the High Court in Edinburgh in 2020.
The Scottish Conservatives called for Sturgeon to resign the night before she gave evidence, saying there was “no doubt” she had misled parliament.
Party leader Douglas Ross said: “The weight of the evidence is overwhelming. Nicola Sturgeon must resign.
“We will be submitting a vote of no confidence in the First Minister.”