In split vote, probe says Scottish leader misled lawmakers

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leaves her home, in Glasgow, Scotland, Tuesday, March 23, 2021. A Scottish parliamentary investigation says Sturgeon misled lawmakers about sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor. Lawmakers have been investigating the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against former First Minister Alex Salmond. A report published Tuesday says Sturgeon gave lawmakers “an inaccurate account of what happened” at a key meeting with Salmond in 2018 and "misled the committee on this matter.” (Andrew Milligan/PA via AP)

LONDON — A Scottish parliamentary investigation concluded in a split decision Tuesday that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon misled lawmakers about sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor.

The finding came a day after a separate inquiry, by a senior lawyer, cleared Sturgeon of wrongdoing in the scandal that is roiling Scottish politics weeks before a crucial parliamentary election.

Sturgeon, who hopes to use the May 6 election as a springboard to a referendum on Scottish independence, hailed the report clearing her and condemned the one that found fault. She accused political opponents of trying to “bully me out of office.”

A committee of lawmakers has been investigating the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, who was Scotland’s first minister before Sturgeon took office in 2014.

Its report said Sturgeon had given “an inaccurate account” of what happened at a key meeting with Salmond in 2018, “and she has misled the committee on this matter.”

It also said Sturgeon’s claim about when she first learned of allegations of inappropriate behavior by Salmond toward women — long rumored in Scottish political circles — was “hard to believe.”

The committee split along party lines, with four lawmakers from Sturgeon’s governing Scottish National Party dissenting from those conclusions, and five opposition members backing them.

In a separate report on Monday, James Hamilton, a former chief prosecutor in Ireland who advises the Scottish government, concluded that Sturgeon didn’t mislead parliament or breach the code of conduct for government ministers.

Sturgeon called the lawyer’s findings “official, definitive and independent.”

She said that had Hamilton found she’d misled parliament, “I would have been here tendering my resignation.”

“I may not have got everything right in my handling of this situation. … But I am clear in my mind that I acted appropriately and that I made the right judgements overall,” Sturgeon told lawmakers.

The opposition Conservative Party called a no-confidence vote on Sturgeon’s leadership in the Scottish Parliament, with party leader Ruth Davidson urging the first minister to do “the honorable thing” and resign.

Sturgeon comfortably survived the vote by a 65-31 margin with the backing of SNP and Green Party legislators.

The political and personal feud has pitted Sturgeon against her former friend and mentor Salmond, and is wracking Scotland’s pro-independence governing party.

In 2019, Salmond was charged with sexual assault and attempted rape after allegations by nine women who had worked with him as first minister or for the party. He was acquitted by a criminal court in 2020, and claims the allegations were part of a conspiracy to wreck his political career.

Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in 2019 that the government’s investigation of the claims against Salmond was unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias,” and awarded him more than $695,000 in legal expenses.

The scandal has cast a harsh light on conditions for women in Scottish politics, with some saying the botched handling of Salmond’s case, and repeated leaks to the media about the subsequent investigation, would discourage complainants from speaking up.

The investigating committee said Tuesday that the Scottish government’s handling of the complaints was “seriously flawed” and the women who made the allegations were “badly let down.”

Deputy First Minister John Swinney apologized to the women involved, and said “the Scottish government has acknowledged that it made mistakes” in handling the allegations.

“I remain absolutely determined that the Scottish government should ensure this does not happen again and that together we create a culture where these behaviors do not arise,” he said.

The political drama in Edinburgh could have major implications for the future of Scotland and the U.K.

Scottish voters opted to remain part of the U.K. in a 2014 independence referendum that was billed at the time as a once-in-a-generation decision. But the Scottish National Party says Brexit has fundamentally changed the situation by dragging Scotland out of the European Union against its will. A majority of Scottish voters backed “remain” in the U.K.’s 2016 EU membership referendum. The U.K. as a whole voted narrowly to leave the bloc.

A Scottish Parliament election is due on May 6, and the SNP leads in opinion polls. Sturgeon says if she wins a majority, she will push for a new independence referendum and challenge British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in court if his government refuses to agree.