NICOLA Sturgeon knew of concerns about Alex Salmond’s behaviour months before he was formally investigated by the Scottish Government, it has emerged.

The Government’s top official, Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans, told a Holyrood inquiry that she raised the issue directly with the First Minister in November 2017.

Ms Evans said she told Ms Sturgeon that Sky News were investigating an “incident” at Edinburgh Airport, and that Mr Salmond had been contacting Government staff about it.

She said one of those contacted had been “extremely concerned” by the contact.

Ms Evans told the inquiry’s first evidence session: “I did mention that to the First Minister. I told her about that. I said I was concerned."

She said she mentioned it "mostly because the staff were anxious about it", but also in case it became a news story that the Government would have to handle.

Sky News would later run a story about sexual misconduct claims against Mr Salmond - which he denied - involving female employees at the airport around 2008, and that the then SNP leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson, had been informed at the time.

It was not until January 2019, two months after the conversation between Ms Evans and Ms Sturgeon, that the Government launched a formal investigation into Mr Salmond about other allegations from civil servants.

Ms Sturgeon later told MSPs that it was not until April 2018 that she was informed an investigation was underway, saying Mr Salmond told her himself at her Glasgow home.

However Ms Evans’s evidence suggests Ms Sturgeon may have had a fuller picture of allegations about Mr Salmond than she has previously admitted.

The Tories demanded Ms Sturgeon "come clean about what she knew and when".

The Permanent Secretary also denied that the Government had engineered a new complaints policy covering former ministers in 2017 in order to "get Alex Salmond".

The committee is looking at how the Government botched an in-house probe into sexual misconduct claims made against Mr Salmond in 2018. 

Mr Salmond had the exercise set aside in a judicial review at the Court of Session, forcing ministers to admit it had been unfair, unlawful and “tainted by apparent bias”.

The collapse of the Government’s case in January 2019 left taxpayers with a £500,000 legal bill for Mr Salmond’s costs, and the Holyrood inquiry is investigating what happened. 

The MSPs are also looking at whether Nicola Sturgeon broke the Scottish ministerial code by staying in contact with Mr Salmond while her officials were investigating him.

Ms Evans, who gave evidence under oath, was the committee’s first oral witness.

She gave evidence on the development of the complaints process which was used against Mr Salmond, explaining it had been developed in late 2017 in the wake of the #MeToo movement and allegations of sexual misconduct at Westminster.

Unlike previous policies, it would cover allegations against ministers and former ministers.

She said a “whole range” of concerns were raised at the time, two of which progressed into formal complaints, leading to the in-house investigation into Mr Salmond.

In her opening statement, she said investigating those complaints - from two women known as Ms A and Ms B - had been “the right thing to do” despite the outcome.

She also apologised “unreservedly” for the flaws when led to the judicial review defeat.

She said: “She When complaints were raised it would have been unconscionable, and a failure in our duty of care, not to investigate those complaints. 

“However, it was accepted at Judicial Review that one part of our procedure should have been applied differently. I apologise unreservedly to all concerned for this procedural failure.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Alex Cole-Hamilton said it was a “matter of public record that Ms B first notified officials of her complaint against Alex Salmond on or around 7 November 2017”.

He asked Ms Evans: “Did you at any point signal to Nicola Sturgeon or anyone else involved in the development of the policy… for former ministers that this complaint had been made?”

Ms Evans replied: “A concern was raised by a whole range of people in November 2017. 

“As a backdrop with #MeToo, historical high profile case taking place, we were receiving concerns from staff, and in a separate but concurrent stream of work, the HR team were providing support, advice, information for staff.

 “I was made aware of two things actually. I was made aware of contact that had taken place between Mr Salmond and certain Scottish Government members of staff in early November.

“He had contacted them because he had… he wanted to talk to them about a piece of media work that was going on, which was being undertaken by Sky News. 

“And I was told by two different sources,one of them extremely concerned, that they had received this contact, and they were a bit bewildered and unhappy about it.

“I didn’t know what was said. I didn’t ask. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to know. But I was concerned that the staff… they’re always my priority in these sets of circumstances. 

“So I mentioned that, that Mr Salmond had been in touch with staff about an Edinburgh Airport incident that Sky News were investigating. I did mention that to the First Minister.

“I told her about that. I said I was concerned. 

“I was concerned mostly because the staff were anxious about it. 

“I was also concerned that it could become a story - I didn’t it know - I was concerned that we would be ready whatever story the format might blow. 

“The media was very volatile at that point.

“At the same time, I was told there were other people who were coming forward with concerns, not complaints, so concerns, they were not registered.”

Convener Linda Fabinai said she was becoming “uncomfortable” with the direction of the evidence, and then stopped Mr Cole-Hamilton when he tried to ask again about Ms B.

Mr Cole-Hamilton asked whether knowledge of Ms B’s concern influence the development of the complaints policy, which was done between 31 October and 20 December 2017.

He said: “Forgive me for being blunt, but the optics of this are not great. Was this targeted policy, which only applied to harassment complaints against former ministers, engineered to fit any complaint that had been arrived at through the Scottish Government?”

Ms Evans said: “No.”

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: “Was is designed to get Alex Salmond?”

Ms Evans said: “No, absolutely not.”

Ms Evans repeated the point about November 2017 later in the evidence session.

Labour MSP Jackie Ballie asked her: “When were you made aware of the likelihood of concerns or complaints made against the former First Minister?”

Ms Evans replied: “Going back to the conversation I had with Mr Hamilton, I was first aware of the issue being raised through a different route, which was Mr Salmond getting in touch with us about Edinburgh Airport.

“After that I was made aware of a range of people - though I didn’t know who - who were raising concerns. They were ranging concerns about a range of different circumstances, I understood, although I wasn’t told about them.

“And one of those I was alerted to had referenced Mr Salmond.”

Ms Baillie asked: “When was that?” 

Ms Evans replied: “That was in early November.”

It was not until November 2018, a year later, that Sky News ran its report about Edinburgh Airport, by which time the Scottish Government had completed its probe into Mr Salmond, he had quit the SNP and launched his judicial review, and the police had been involved.

Asked in November 2018 if the SNP had ever attempted to bury the matter, Ms Sturgeon said: “That is absolutely not the case, emphatically not the case.” 

In response to SNP MSP Maureen Watt, Ms Evans said the Government had taken advice from Police Scotland when developing the complaints procedure to ensure victims were free to go the police if they wished - and that this was part of the final policy.

She said: “As our investigation - and I know we’re not going into the application of that now - but as that reached its conclusion, the Scottish Government decided, informed by legal advice, that three of the complaints should be referred to Police Scotland, and of course as a Government, and indeed as a civil service, we have to comply with the law.”

The committee also had a public spat over one line of evidence, with the convener blocking Tory MSP Murdo Fraser from asked whether female civil servants had ever been advised not to be alone with Mr Salmond.

This was a disputed claim made during Mr Salmond’s separate criminal trial this year, at which he was acquitted of 13 counts of sexual assault. 

Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon are both due to give evidence to the inquiry under oath.

After Ms Evans gave an hour and 45 minutes of evidence, Ms Fabiani urged her and ministers to reconsider their refusal to hand over files related to the judicial review on the basis of “legal privilege” and a refusal to allow certain officials to give evidence.

Ms Baillie, who had a series of testy exchanges with Ms Evans over the accuracy of her evidence, said afterwards that her appearance “left many questions unanswered”.

She said: “The drafting process of the policy on the handling of harassment complaints was clearly rushed and remains shrouded in secrecy;  the timeline exposes inconsistencies and complaints were lodged before the policy had even been published.

“The inclusion of ‘former ministers’ to the policy appears to have been added at a point that coincided with the Permanent Secretary and others becoming aware of allegations made against the former First Minister.

“It is the role of this committee to uncover how it came to be that the Scottish taxpayer was made to foot the bill for an expensive and botched investigation. We must have clarity and transparency from the Scottish Government going forward.”

Murdo Fraser said: “Leslie Evans’s apology for these mistakes is hollow and meaningless when she immediately chooses secrecy over scrutiny.

“Ducking questions on day one is not a good look for someone who cost the Scottish public more than £500,000 that could have been spent on schools or hospitals.

“She cannot refuse questions about the claims that female civil servants couldn’t work alone with Alex Salmond. And the SNP convener cannot shut down valid enquiries – or else it’s clear that the cover up is already under way.

“That Ms Evans told Nicola Sturgeon about Alex Salmond’s contact ‘in case it became a story’ is a stunning revelation that tells you all you need to know about a government that is rotten at its core.

“We now know that Nicola Sturgeon was aware of Alex Salmond contacting Scottish Government staff in November 2017.

“Are we really to believe that the First Minister didn’t ask anyone what Mr Salmond was saying? She really didn’t even look into this matter any further? We are genuinely meant to accept that Leslie Evans didn’t even ask what the Sky News story was about – and neither did the First Minister?

“It seems that Nicola Sturgeon has been caught out by her permanent secretary and she must urgently come clean about what she knew and when.

“Time is up for the First Minister. The Scottish public cannot be treated like mugs any longer. She must tell us exactly when she found out about Alex Salmond’s alleged behaviour. No more spin and secrecy.”

A  spokesperson for Ms Sturgeon said: “The Tories are deliberately conflating different issues.  As the First Minister has repeatedly made clear, she looks forward to giving evidence to the committee in due course.”