NICOLA Sturgeon had a meeting connected to the Alex Salmond affair which she did not declare to MSPs, the Scottish Government has confirmed.
The meeting, on 29 March 2018 with Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, will now be examined by the independent adviser on the Scottish Ministerial Code.
The adviser, James Hamilton, has been asked to investigate whether Ms Sturgeon broke the code by failing to declare relevant information to her officials or abused her power.
Mr Salmond could be interviewed as part of the process, it emerged today.
The former First Minister and his successor are due to give evidence under oath to a Holyrood inquiry into the Salmond affair in the coming weeks.
The cross-party committee is looking at how the Scottish Government’s botched an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018.
Mr Salmond had the exercise set aside in a judicial review at the Court of Session, forcing ministers to admit it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.
The collapse of the Government’s case left taxpayers with a £500,000 legal bill for Mr Salmond’s costs, and the Holyrood inquiry is now investigating what happened.
After the Government’s retreat in January 2019, the First Minister told MSPs she had five contacts with Mr Salmond in 2018 while he was being investigated by officials.
Under the Government’s own procedure, she was not supposed to be aware of it.
She said he had told her himself about the Scottish Government’s probe on 2 April at her Glasgow home, and that she had met him again on 7 June at the SNP conference in Aberdeen, and for a second time at her home on 14 July.
She said she had also talked to him by phone on 23 April and 18 July 2018.
She told Holyrood: “On 2 April, he informed me about the complaints against him, which – of course – in line with the procedure, the permanent secretary [Leslie Evans] had not done.”
Two days later, facing questions from the media, she also said she didn’t know what Mr Salmond wanted to talk her about when he visited her on 2 April.
She said: “From memory, he wanted to come and tell me something I needed to know in my role as party leader. But at that point at which he came to see me I didn’t know what the subject of it was.”
However it emerged at Mr Salmond’s separate criminal trial – at which he was acquitted of 13 counts of sexual assault in March – that there had been another relevant meeting.
Geoff Aberdein, Mr Salmond’s former chief of staff, told the court he met Ms Sturgeon at her Holyrood office on 29 March 2018, four days before she met Mr Salmond at her home.
This meeting was never mentioned by Ms Sturgeon, and until now has not been formally confirmed by the Scottish Government.
However Sky News last month reported it had seen an account of the meeting which said the existence of complaints against Mr Salmond had been discussed.
“There was discussion about the investigation, the process of it, the fact it was a civil service investigation being conducted by civil servants,” the account said.
This would contradict the suggestion Mr Salmond first informed Ms Sturgeon about it.
After the Sky News report, the Government said: “First Minister has made clear she stands by what she said in Parliament.”
However the Government has now added this previously undeclared meeting to Mr Hamilton’s remit.
In a Government initiated parliamentary answer, Deputy FM John Swinney said Mr Hamilton’s ministerial code investigation was now being revived after being paused because of Mr Salmond’s trial and the coronavirus crisis.
He said Mr Hamilton has been asked to proceed and report his findings “as soon as possible”.
In the background to the answer, the Government said: “It has been alleged that the First Minister breached the Scottish Ministerial Code in that she failed to feed back the basic facts of meetings and discussions held with Alex Salmond to her private office as required by sections 4.22 and 4.23 of the Code.
“The meetings and discussions in question took place on:
29 March 2018 – Meeting between Ms Sturgeon and Geoff Aberdein, former Chief of Staff to Mr Salmond, Scottish Parliament
2 April 2018 – Meeting between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond at Ms Sturgeon’s home.
23 April 2018 – Telephone conversation between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond.
7 June 2018 – Meeting between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond at SNP Conference, Aberdeen.
14 July 2018 – Meeting between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond at Ms Sturgeon’s home.
18 July 2018 – Telephone conversation between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond.
“It is has been further suggested that, in light of those meetings, the First Minister may have attempted to influence the conduct of the investigation then being undertaken by the Permanent Secretary into allegations made against Mr Salmond under the Procedure for Handling of Harassment Complaints involving Current or Former Ministers.”
Mr Hamilton’s remit includes the ability to “review any relevant documentation relating to the meetings and discussions listed above”.
He can also “interview any minister of official of the Scottish Government, including Special Advisers, who may have any knowledge of the facts and content of the meetings and discussions, to assess whether the Ministerial Code is engaged and, if so, whether the terms of the Code have been complied with.”