SCOTLAND'S deputy first minister faced calls for her resignation last night, after she personally asked a court not to jail a serial benefits fraudster.
Nicola Sturgeon wrote a letter of support for Abdul Rauf before he was sentenced for defrauding 80,000 of taxpayers' money from the Department of Work and Pensions. She referred to Rauf's crime as a "mistake" and appealed to a sheriff to "consider alternatives to a custodial sentence".
Opposition politicians accused her of an "astonishing lack of judgment" and said she should resign.
But in a robust defence, an SNP spokesman said representations on behalf of a constituent were routine, and he accused opposition politicians of an "extraordinarily ill-judged attack". He also described Labour's call for her to resign as "absurd" and "beneath contempt".
Donald Findlay, QC, who was defending Rauf at Glasgow Sheriff Court, said it was the first time in his long legal career he had handed the court a letter from someone of such importance.
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Sheriff Alan MacKenzie said he was still minded to send Rauf, 59, to prison but promised to take into account Ms Sturgeon's comments before he reached a decision.
The deputy first minister had written the letter on behalf of Rauf, even though she was aware he had been given a four-year sentence for stealing 58,624 in pension and benefit payments in 1996.
Ms Sturgeon, who trained as a solicitor, was alerted to his second court case after he went to her in July 2008. He asked for help because she was his constituency MSP, in Glasgow Govan.
He admitted that offence last month, and Alex Salmond's No2 wrote to the court earlier this month.
She pointed out Rauf suffered from heart problems, had young children and was heavily involved in community work. Her letter referred to his second conviction for fraud and described it as a "mistake". She went on: "I would appeal to the court to take the points raised here into account and consider alternatives to a custodial sentence."
Richard Baker, Labour's justice spokesman, said Ms Sturgeon's intervention meant she should quit as a minister. He said: "This letter of support for a convicted fraudster shows an astonishing lack of judgment from Nicola Sturgeon.
"The fact the deputy first minister had known about Mr Rauf's case since July 2008 compounds her mistake and she must resign.
"I do not know how either her constituents, or anyone else in Scotland, can continue to have faith in the judgment of such a senior minister when she has acted so inappropriately."
Scottish Liberal Democrat chief whip Mike Rumbles said: "It beggars belief that the deputy first minister of Scotland could think it appropriate to write in support of a convicted fraudster who is now facing another conviction."
The row is the latest in a series of incidents that have raised doubts about the judgment of Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond.
It comes days after it was revealed the First Minister and his deputy had auctioned lunches in the Scottish Parliament's restaurant for thousands of pounds in a bid to raise SNP funds – the so-called "Lunchgate" affair.
It also followed controversy over Mr Salmond's lobbying on behalf of an illegal immigrant facing drugs charges. At the end of last year, he wrote to Home Secretary Alan Johnson, asking that "favourable consideration" be given to letting Zheng Bin – a chef in a restaurant near his Peterhead constituency office – stay in Scotland.
The latest row erupted when Rauf appeared at Glasgow Sheriff Court and Mr Findlay produced Ms Sturgeon's letter.
Rauf was in the dock after failing to declare a property worth 200,000 in Newington, Edinburgh, on his application for income support.
Rauf, who lives in a 400,000 house in Maxwell Park, Glasgow, was receiving 650 a month in rent for the property while he claimed the benefit between 2001 and 2006. When asked why he had not declared ownership of the flat, he replied: "It slipped my mind."
Yesterday, Sheriff MacKenzie deferred sentence until May and Rauf was released on bail.
His previous offence occurred when he was sub-postmaster at Tollcross Post Office in Edinburgh. Between June 1993 and July 1994, he stole 58,624 in pension and benefit payments. He was sentenced at the High Court in Edinburgh after a sheriff-court jury heard he had forged signatures on 779 Department of Social Security payment orders and kept the cash for himself.
Last night, Ms Sturgeon said she had known of his previous conviction before she wrote her letter, an admission that astonished her opponents.
Tory justice spokesman Bill Aitken said: "It is extraordinary to describe a second conviction for fraud as a mistake. Either Ms Sturgeon didn't care about his previous fraud conviction or she didn't check. Either would be unbelievable and a grave lapse of judgment. His previous conviction was a matter of public record as recently as four weeks ago. To call these crimes a mistake is simply wrong."
As it attempted to defuse the row, the SNP emphasised Rauf was neither an SNP member nor a party donor. Nor was Rauf at the dinner in a restaurant last week when lunches with Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond were auctioned off for thousands of pounds.
Last night, there were suggestions that Ms Sturgeon knew of Rauf through his community work and had been introduced to him by Bashir Ahmad, the late SNP MSP who was a prominent member of the Glasgow Asian community.
But Ms Sturgeon said: "I don't recall being introduced to him by Bashir Ahmad. My first dealings with him were as an MSP when he came to see me about this case. I may have met him previously. But my involvement with him is as his constituency MSP. It is an MSP/constituent relationship."
A spokesman for the deputy first minister said she had represented her constituent entirely properly and appropriately.
He said she had acted in accordance with her duties by advising the court of his health problems and the potential impact on his family life. "To suggest anything else is frankly beneath contempt," he added.
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