Under fire, Scottish leader defends handling of sex claims

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First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon takes the oath before giving evidence to the Committee on the Scottish Government Handling of Harassment Complaints, at Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland, Wednesday March 3, 2021. The inquiry is investigating the governments handling of sexual harassment allegations against former leader Alex Salmond, and allegations that Sturgeon misled parliament. (Jeff J Mitchell/PA via AP)

LONDON – Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Wednesday strongly denied being part of a plot against her predecessor, as she testified under oath in a political saga that is threatening both her leadership and her push for an independent Scotland.

Sturgeon defended the way her government handled sexual assault claims against former First Minister Alex Salmond, saying the #MeToo movement had made it clear that abuse allegations about powerful people must not be “ignored or swept under the carpet.”

Sturgeon testified for more than seven hours to a committee of lawmakers probing a political and personal feud that is wracking Scotland’s pro-independence movement and the governing Scottish National Party. Its antagonists are Salmond and Sturgeon, two former allies and friends who have dominated Scottish politics for decades.

Salmond was tried and acquitted last year on sexual assault charges, and claims the allegations made by several women were part of a conspiracy to wreck his political career.

He accuses Sturgeon of lying about when she learned of the allegations and breaking the code of conduct for government ministers. He alleges her administration undermined democratic principles and the rule of law by allowing the distinctions between government, party and civil service to become blurred.

Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in 2019 that the way the Scottish government had handled the misconduct allegations was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias,” and awarded Salmond 500,000 pounds ($695,000) in expenses.

Sturgeon told a Scottish Parliament inquiry into the handling of the complaints that no one had “acted with malice or as part of a plot against Alex Salmond.”

“A number of women made serious complaints about Alex Salmond’s behavior,” she said. “The government, despite the mistakes 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.”