JIM Sillars has written to Nicola Sturgeon asking her to refer herself to be assessed on whether she breached the ministerial code over comments she made about Alex Salmond at a Covid briefing last week.

The First Minister has denied any breach relating to code at the press conference last Wednesday – or any other alleged breaches of it – and has said she will address the claims when she gives evidence to a Holyrood inquiry this week.

Sillars, the former deputy leader of the SNP, wrote last week to the head of the civil service Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans asking her to take action over the matter.

In his letter last Thursday he accused the First Minister of a “grave” breach of the code after she made comments about her predecessor''s acquittal on sexual assault charges on live TV.  Salmond was cleared of all charges after a trial last year at the High Court in Edinburgh.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon's full reply to claim she broke ministerial code at Covid briefing

Sillars alleged the First Minister failed in her duty to uphold the “highest standards of behaviour” when she made the comments at Wednesday's daily briefing. 

He said people watching would have inferred the jury was wrong based on Sturgeon's "weasel words" – an interpretation the First Minister disputes.

She told him in her reply last Thursday: "It is also entirely wrong of you to suggest that I was casting doubt on the outcome of the criminal trial. I have never, and would never, call into question the jury's findings."

During the briefing on February 24, Sturgeon criticised Salmond and claimed he was peddling conspiracy theories, despite previously saying the sessions should only be for information to be delivered about the pandemic.

READ MORE: Alex Salmond criticises Nicola Sturgeon for using Covid briefing to attack him

She also told the briefing: “The behaviour complained of was found by a jury not to constitute criminal conduct and Alex Salmond is innocent of criminality, but that doesn’t mean that the behaviour they complained of didn’t happen and I think it’s important that we don’t lose sight of that.”

Speaking before the inquiry on the Scottish Government mishandling of harassment complaints made against the former First Minister on Friday, Salmond said he had watched the press conference in “astonishment”.

In his letter to the Permanent Secretary Sillars wrote last Thursday: “It is not for me to question a decision by the First Minister to make a public attack on Mr Salmond.

“But if she wished to do so, then she could have arranged a press conference on the subject, which would have been the proper and legitimate forum in which to do so. Abusing the Government Covid briefing was neither proper or legitimate. That is where the code has been breached," he alleged.

He also expressed concern over Sturgeon’s reference to the criminal trial. Sillars claimed:  “Those were weasel words employed by the First Minister, and any reasonable person would draw more than an inference from them that the jury was wrong.”

Sillars went on: “I have been in public life for over 60 years, and in the course of it studied how heads of state and governments in the democracies have behaved in office. I cannot recall one single incident when the head of a government so egregiously questioned the verdict of a jury, or event thought it a proper and legitimate discharge of their duty to do so.”

The First Minister responded to Sillar’s letter by email on February 25, the same day it was sent.

In her response she says she has “made every attempt to restrict the focus of my daily briefings to responding to the pandemic”.

“However, and quite properly, we do not seek to vet the questions put to me by journalists. I had no prior knowledge that a number of journalists were intending to ask me about Mr Salmond. It is therefore quite incorrect for you to suggest that this was in some way a ‘deliberate choice’ on my part. Nothing could be further from the truth."

She went on: “Indeed, I was at pains to move the questioning back onto issues relating to Covid as soon as I could. If I had refused to answer these questions I would doubtless have been criticised for avoiding scrutiny.”

And she denied breaching the code. “Despite your allegations, I am clear that I did not breach the ministerial code. Of course, the most appropriate place for me to be questioned about these matters is in front of the parliamentary committee.

"And I look forward, at long last, to appearing before the committee next week when I can lay out the facts of what happened rather than the spurious and unfounded conspiracies that others choose to misrepresent as the truth for their own ends.”

But in his letter sent to the First Minister today Sillars he thinks "it would have been wiser for you to take more time to consider the substance of my letter" and asked her to refer herself to James Hamilton QC, currently considering other alleged breaches by the First Minister of the code, or another "independent person".

"May I request that you transfer the question of whether or not you breached the Ministerial Code to Mr. Hamilton or some other suitable independent person.  I think, given the gravity of the breaches I have detailed, it would not be construed as proper for you to be judge and jury," he wrote.

He outlined his reasons for his complaint today.

"I concur with your view of the Covid briefings as of great advantage to the public. You have been scrupulous in keeping them to that agenda, which is your Government’s agenda. When you chose to depart from that practice and respond to a non-Covid related question from James Matthew, to launch a political attack on Alex Salmond, you breached the Code as I set out in my original letter," he said.

"Of course, I accept, as you say, that you did not know that Mr. Matthew would ask you a non-Covid related question; but you had the choice to inform him that it was not an appropriate one in the context of a public health briefing, or to take the bait.  The choice you made was yours, and yours alone."   

He added: "You are an experienced Minister, with many years of dealing with questions from journalists. You and others in your position never know what they might ask, just as you do not know the supplementary questions that will come from MSPs at FMQs.  

"Ministers have a variety of ways that enable them to avoid answering questions that are inappropriate, or asked in a context not germane to the agenda for which the meeting was called. It is not a criticism to say that you employ that approach each week at FMQs, and could have done so in reply to the first non-Covid related question from the SKY journalist. Again, I make the point that you chose not to do so." 

He went on: "Your excuse, that if you ‘had refused to answer these questions I would have been criticised for avoiding scrutiny,’ is unconvincing. Who would have criticised you? Not the public looking in on the briefing, for whom public health information is their only reason for watching.  

"I venture to suggest that a sharp reminder to Mr. Matthew of the purpose of the briefing would not have been criticised by the public, but approved.  It is true that journalists may have criticised you, but that goes with job and should not be something of such importance to you, that you chose to breach the Code in order to avoid their anticipated critical views.  Your reply gives me no reason to withdraw that part of my complaint."

Sillars then goes on the dispute the First Minister's contention that she was not casting doubt on the outcome of Salmond's criminal trial and refers to a statement published after Wednesday's briefing by the body representing advocates.

He wrote: "The statement issued by the  Faculty of Advocates, expressing their concern about  the reputation of the Scottish legal system,  included  ‘and perhaps most importantly, the vital place of the verdict of impartial juries in criminal  proceedings.’  

"That they should feel it necessary to  issue that statement on the day following your departure from the purpose of the  public health briefing, speaks volumes.  I see no reason to withdraw my complaint that in choosing to speak as you did in relation to the criminal trial, you breached the Code.

"I now refer to the final paragraph of your letter where it says: ‘Of course the most appropriate place for me to be questioned about these matters is in front of the Parliamentary  Committee.’ I agree. But in choosing first to use the forum of a briefing on Covid public health matters, you breached the Code." 

At the end of his letter, he added: "I shall be grateful to have your assurance that you will refer my complaint to either Mr. Hamilton or some other person with the authority to investigate it." 

Deputy First Minister John Swinney told Holyrood last year, in response to a parliamentary question, thar Hamilton is free to consider evidence on any aspect of the ministerial code that he deems to be relevant.

Giving evidence before the committee on Friday, Salmond repeatedly accused the First Minister of breaching the ministerial code of conduct, claimed she had misled parliament over when she knew about allegations of harassment made against him. But he stopped short of saying she should resign.

The First Minister told MSPs she first learned of the claims at a meeting in her home with Salmond on April 2 2018, but it later emerged she had been told four days earlier by his former chief of staff Geoff Aberdein at a meeting in her office, which she claimed to have forgotten.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon did not breach ministerial code, Ian Blackford says

The First Minister referred herself for investigation to James Hamilton QC, an independent adviser on the ministerial code.

Despite calls for the First Minister to stand down if she is found to have breached the code, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford has thrown his support behind his party leader.

“She’s made it clear on a number of occasions that she does not believe she has broken the ministerial code,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday.

“I believe that to be the case as well, this will be put to bed, and we will be able to move on from it to make sure we are dealing with the Covid crisis in the right way, and we’re having that discussion about what Scotland’s future is.

“I and my party have full confidence in the First Minister leading us to that destination of Scotland becoming an independent country.”