SHE met him five times. He was in trouble. He sought her help. There was to be a court case. Nicola Sturgeon felt sorry for him. She wrote a letter.

When it all came out, she was accused of a serious error of judgment. She denied wrongdoing. But the pressure at Holyrood kept mounting. Her job was on the line. After two weeks of bluster and excuses, she finally said sorry.

The year was 2010, Ms Sturgeon was Health Secretary, and the man was a crooked constituent who had defrauded the Department of Work and Pensions out of £80,000.

As fellow anoraks may recall, Ms Sturgeon, in her role as the MSP for Govan, wrote to the sheriff in the case calling the offence a “mistake” and urged a non-custodial sentence.

At the time, it was the most perilous moment of her career. But her thoughtful apology to MSPs earned her a huge amount of praise and drew the sting from the affair.

“It is not easy for any of us to stand up and say that we should have done things differently or better than we did,” she told parliament.

“Our political culture… does not make that easy, but I think that it is right that I should do so.

“My reflections will stay with me for a long time to come.”

But obviously not long enough. The FM is now in in a not dissimilar hole, and she keeps digging.

The collapse of the Scottish Government’s investigation into two sexual misconduct claims against Alex Salmond has led to the greatest crisis of her premiership.

The person who investigated the claims, which Mr Salmond denies, was in contact with his accusers for several weeks before taking the case.

It was a fundamental unfairness that tainted the whole exercise.

But Ms Sturgeon also failed to stand aside at a critical moment.

Under the government procedure, she was not supposed to know about the probe until it was finished.

But on April 2 last year, Mr Salmond went to her Glasgow home and told her what was going on, how unhappy he was, and that he was considering a legal challenge.

The meeting was brokered by Ms Sturgeon’s chief of staff Liz Lloyd, who is a government employee.

Farcically, Ms Sturgeon maintains this was a "party" meeting in her capacity as SNP leader, even though it discussed the investigation, which was a “government process”.

Ms Sturgeon did not send a note of the meeting to her private office, as set down in the ministerial code.

It took her two months to write a letter to her top official, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, to tell her what had happened. Then she met Mr Salmond again the next day.

In total, she discussed the investigation with its subject in three meetings and two phone calls.

Ms Sturgeon’s office says this was not a situation she wanted to be in. No doubt. But while she has an excuse for the first contact, when Mr Salmond dropped his bombshell, there is no excuse for the other four.

She says she did not intervene. But why did she keep meeting him?

That was a straight-out mistake. And it is compounded by insulting people’s intelligence by pretending otherwise, and hiding behind word games about ‘party’ meetings.

Ms Sturgeon now faces calls to refer herself to her independent advisers on the ministerial code to determine if there was breach - or indeed multiple breaches.

The opposition parties are also trying to whip up a Holyrood inquiry to grill Ms Sturgeon and her officials about who knew what and when. Her refusal to admit mistakes will only harden their resolve.

Think also of the women at the heart of this episode. On Thursday, Ms Sturgeon said: “I am absolutely clear that my responsibility is to make sure that we encourage, enable and empower people with complaints to come forward, by putting in place robust procedures and by doing everything that we can to make sure that those processes are beyond reproach.”

Beyond reproach? How in God’s name is it beyond reproach for the First Minister to keep meeting a man accused of molesting her civil servants while he is under investigation? How is that supposed to build trust in the system?

There is no neat solution to Ms Sturgeon’s predicament. Her predecessor is out for revenge over his treatment. “There’s very, very bad blood between Alex and her,” one of the former FM’s friends tells me. “He’s been treated appallingly.”

The breakdown in relations between the SNP’s most successful leaders takes the party into unchartered territory. The feud could polarise the membership.

Mr Salmond, who is fanning the flames with a conspiracy theory that people want “to remove me as a political threat”, has a small but highly effective briefing operation.

As ex-ministers amplify his gripes in the press, he is being helped by his wily former special adviser Campbell Gunn. Mr Gunn, who also served Ms Sturgeon, gleefully ran rings around his former government colleagues last week.

Ms Sturgeon also faces those inquiries and questions over her judgment. To get out from under it all, she needs to tackle it piece by piece. She would do well to start by reflecting on her words to MSPs in 2010. When you’re First Minister, no doubt sorry is the hardest word.

But she needs to say it, and soon.