Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP face potentially damaging revelations over the Alex Salmond affair after a Holyrood committee invoked legal powers never used before to force the release of “explosive” documents.
The Holyrood inquiry investigating a botched civil service probe into allegations of sexual misconduct against the former First Minister said it needed to see information held by Scottish prosecutors to assess claims that a harassment procedure was used to “damage the reputation of Alex Salmond”.
Its convenor, an SNP MSP, said the “unprecedented” move, designed to force the release of documents obtained in the criminal investigation into Mr Salmond and passed to his defence, was needed to uncover the truth.
The legal notice to the Crown Office requests internal communications between senior SNP and Scottish Government officials, over text message and WhatsApp, related to Mr Salmond.
It has also asked for any documents which could cast light on a leak to a tabloid newspaper, in which details of the investigation into Mr Salmond were first reported.
The former First Minister had previously been warned that he could be prosecuted if he mentioned the documents disclosed to him for his defence.
The committee's legal notice states: “It has been asserted to the committee that the documents include evidence that elements of the Scottish Government (including special advisers) used the Scottish Government’s Harassment complaints procedure and complaints considered through the same to damage the reputation of Alex Salmond, former First Minister.
“It is in the public interest to establish the veracity of these claims in order to allow the committee to understand fully the actions of the Scottish Government in handling the complaints and in order to inform the conclusions of our committee in line with its remit.”
Mr Salmond’s allies believe the documents will add significant weight to claims that he was the victim of a political conspiracy aimed at preventing him from making a political comeback and challenging Ms Sturgeon.
He successfully challenged the fairness of the civil service probe against him in court. After he was cleared of all 13 sexual assault charges at his trial, following a separate criminal investigation, Mr Salmond alluded to a plot against him and said evidence he had been unable to present in court “will see the light of day”.
Jackie Baillie, the interim leader of Scottish Labour who sits on the committee, said: “This unprecedented action is necessary to cut through the web of secrecy that the Scottish Government has woven and to allow the committee to live up to its remit.
“The committee must receive the documents requested forthwith so that the truth of this sorry affair can be uncovered.”
Ms Sturgeon has strongly denied allegations of a conspiracy. It is claimed some of the as-yet unreleased documents could raise questions over the previous testimony of her husband, the SNP chief executive Peter Murrell.
A committee’s legal powers to demand the release of documents has never been invoked before in the 22-year history of Holyrood. The Lord Advocate, Scotland’s top law officer and a member of the SNP cabinet, could seek to resist the request if he deems releasing the documents would be contrary to the public interest.
A spokesman for the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service said: “COPFS has received the correspondence from the committee and will respond in early course.”
Meanwhile, Mr Salmond is also in an escalating row with the committee over when he will give much-anticipated evidence in person.
MSPs wrote to him on Friday saying that if he could not give evidence during the first week of February then “the committee regrets that it will not be able to take oral evidence from you.”
Mr Salmond’s lawyers have said is not able to give evidence on the previously-suggested date of February 2 but “will make himself available the following week”.