Nicola Sturgeon has insisted she had no reason to conspire against her predecessor Alex Salmond.
The First Minister rejected the “absurd” suggestion there was a plot against Salmond as she gave evidence to a Holyrood inquiry.
She said: “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.”
Sturgeon told MSPs on the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints that the details of complaints against Salmond were “shocking” and his behaviour “was not always appropriate”.
She said Salmond’s account to her of his “deeply inappropriate behaviour” is 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 as First Minister.
Sturgeon apologised to the public and the women who submitted sexual harassment complaints about Salmond, saying there had been “a very serious mistake” in the Scottish Government’s investigation.
The inquiry into Salmond was launched after a number of women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment.
But a successful judicial review by Salmond resulted in the government investigation being ruled unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”, resulting in a £512,250 legal fee payout.
He was later acquitted of 13 charges following a criminal trial and Sturgeon told MSPs on Wednesday the idea that those involved were “concocting” allegations was false, and they came forward of “their own free will”.
She said it was “absolutely right” the Scottish Government investigated the complaints, saying an “individual’s profile, status or connections should not result in complaints of this nature being ignored or swept under the carpet”.
She said “two women were failed and taxpayers’ money was lost, I deeply regret that”.
She added: “Although I was not aware of the error at the time, I am the head of the Scottish Government so I want to take this opportunity to say sorry to the two women involved and to the wider public.”
Sturgeon said what happened was “simple”, adding: “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.”
Addressing Salmond’s committee evidence on Friday, Sturgeon said: “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 First Minister had originally claimed she first became aware of the Scottish Government investigation into Salmond on April 2, 2018, before later admitting to a March 29 meeting with his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein.
She said that at the March 29 meeting, Mr Aberdein “did indicate a harassment-type issue had arisen, but my recollection is he did so in general terms”.
She told the committee she wishes her memory of the meeting on March 29 was “more vivid”, but “it was the detail of the complaints under the procedure that I was given on April 2 that was significant and indeed shocking”.
Describing the April 2 meeting in her home with Salmond, 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 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.
Addressing the judicial review, Sturgeon said there was strong prospects of defending the challenge and as late as December 11, 2018, the advice given was it was “very clear there was no need to drop the case”.
She said she followed the advice of law officers so did not breach the ministerial code, as has been claimed.
Labour’s Jackie Ballie questioned Sturgeon over “missing” documents from the Scottish Government’s legal advice given to the committee at the “11th hour”, with convener Linda Fabiani saying the committee shares Baillie’s “frustration” on this.
Sturgeon stressed she had always acted “properly and appropriately” and there was “no intention” by the Scottish Government to withhold information from the committee.
She added: “While the government made mistakes… there is nothing here that the government has to hide.”
She said her government’s complaints procedure is “lawful” but there was an error in the appointment of the investigating officer, who had prior contact with the two women who complained.
The First Minister was also questioned about a claim that a senior member of her team had leaked the name of one of the complainers to Mr 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”.
During the committee meeting, Salmond lodged a formal complaint with the head of Scotland’s civil service “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”.
She added: “I’m certain as I can be it didn’t come from my office.”
Sturgeon is facing calls from the Scottish Conservatives to resign after two witnesses backed up Salmond’s claim that she misled parliament about a meeting with her predecessor in evidence to the committee.
She accused Salmond of “lashing out against us” in his evidence, adding “many of us, including me, feel let down by him”.
After the eight-hour evidence session, Sturgeon’s spokesman insisted the First Minister had “dismantled” the allegations levelled against her.
He said: “The First Minister gave a clear, open and transparent account to the committee and directly addressed all of the issues raised.
“She was happy to take all of their questions and gave evidence for as long as the committee members wanted.”
However, the Scottish Conservatives repeated their call for Sturgeon to resign, describing her evidence as a “litany of lies.
Party leader Douglas Ross said: “The litany of lies and abject failures is too much for any First Minister to survive. The evidence is overwhelming. She must go.”
Scottish Labour, meanwhile, said the First Minister still faced “serious questions”.
Committee member and deputy leader Jackie Baillie said: “Ultimately, the First Minister was unable to answer accusations made against her, unable to disprove claims made by credible witnesses, and unable to properly defend the government’s costly decision to persist with the judicial review.
“Serious questions remain over the First Minister’s conduct.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “The committee will need time to consider the large volume of new evidence before reaching its verdict. There are serious matters for the future of the First Minister.
“Reaching the correct conclusion will be the first step on the route to restoring confidence of those who may consider making complaints about harassment in future.”