Lawyer clears Scotland's leader of misleading lawmakers

FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2020, file photo, Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon speaks during a 'Scotland's European Future after Brexit' event at the European Policy Center in Brussels. Sturgeon did not mislead lawmakers or act improperly over sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor, a senior lawyer said Monday, March 22, 2021 in his report into a scandal that is roiling Scottish politics. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo, Pool, File) (Virginia Mayo, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

LONDON – Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon didn't mislead lawmakers or act improperly over sexual harassment allegations against her predecessor, a senior lawyer said Monday in his report into a scandal that has roiled Scottish politics.

James Hamilton, a former chief prosecutor in Ireland who advises the Scottish government, concluded that Sturgeon didn't breach the code of conduct for government ministers. Sturgeon would have faced intense pressure to resign if she was found to have broken the ministerial code.

Sturgeon welcomed the lawyer's findings, calling them “official, definitive and independent.”

“I sought at every stage in this issue to act with integrity and in the public interest," she said.

Hamilton’s probe centers on the Scottish government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations against Alex Salmond, who served as Scotland’s first minister before Sturgeon took office in 2014.

A second inquiry, by a committee of Scottish lawmakers, is due to publish a report on Tuesday. British media have reported that the committee voted 5-4 in favor of finding that Sturgeon gave an inaccurate account to Scotland's Edinburgh-based parliament about when she learned of allegations against Salmond.

Sturgeon has accused the opposition members of the committee of voting on party lines rather than on the evidence.

The political and personal feud has pitted Sturgeon against her former friend and mentor Salmond, and is wracking Scotland’s governing Scottish National 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 made by several women were part of a conspiracy to wreck his political career.

Scotland’s highest civil court ruled in 2019 that the government acted unlawfully in its investigation of the claims against Salmond, and awarded him more than 500,000 pounds ($695,000) in legal expenses.

Hamilton’s findings are unlikely to silence all the questions about the Salmond case. His inquiry had a narrow focus, looking at whether Sturgeon told the truth about when she learned of the allegations, and whether she “attempted to influence the conduct of the investigation” into the harassment complaints.

“There is undoubtedly scope for political criticism of the manner in which Scottish government handled Mr. Salmond’s proceedings,” Hamilton said in his report. “That is not a matter for me to express any view upon.”

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

Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum 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 in May, 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 the courts, if his government refuses to agree.