Alex Salmond dodges defence of defiant Nicola Sturgeon
• During First Minister's Questions, Alex Salmond backed his deputy, but would not answer questions on the controversial letter. Picture: Neil Hanna
On at least five occasions, the First Minister was given the chance to defend his deputy's actions. Each time, he declined to give a straight answer.
However, opposition parties at Holyrood forced Ms Sturgeon to agree to make a statement to parliament on the matter.
She now has two weeks to save her career and avert the crisis triggered by the revelation she wrote to a court to suggest one of her constituents – a convicted serial fraudster who stole more than 136,000 – should be spared jail.
She will appear on 24 February, after next week's recess, when she will have to explain her decision to lobby on behalf of Abdul Rauf, 59, a man convicted of defrauding 80,000 in benefits from the Department of Work and Pensions.
Mr Salmond's defence that MSPs writing in support of a constituent was a "well-known process" was undermined when the SNP's research team failed to produce any other example of an MSP providing a character reference for a convicted criminal.
And the First Minster's claim that the MSPs' code of conduct meant Ms Sturgeon had "an absolute obligation" to act on behalf of her constituent was described as "grossly inaccurate" by his critics.
Ms Sturgeon, the MSP for Glasgow Govan, wrote a character reference for Rauf, in which she appealed to a sheriff to "consider alternatives to a custodial sentence", even though she knew he had a previous conviction.
Rauf was jailed in the 1990s for stealing 58,624 in pension and benefits payments while he was a sub-postmaster in Edinburgh.
Although Mr Salmond said he gave "110 per cent" support to Ms Sturgeon, his lukewarm defence of her during First Minister's Questions yesterday served only to stoke the controversy.
During angry exchanges at Holyrood, he refused to say whether he endorsed her decision to write to Glasgow Sheriff Court on Rauf's behalf, despite being questioned several times by the leaders of the three main opposition parties.
One extraordinary scene illustrated the anger felt across the chamber. Iain Gray, the Labour leader, asked MSPs if any of them would have written in support of such a repeat offender. "Put your hands up," Mr Gray taunted.
Not a single MSP, including those on the SNP benches, dared to raise a hand.
In the chamber, Mr Salmond pointed out that Prime Minister Gordon Brown had written in 1999 on behalf of a constituent, John Penman, who avoided a jail sentence for growing 10,000 of cannabis. The First Minister also mentioned cases where English MPs had written to courts south of the Border.
Later, the SNP found out former Labour first minister Jack McConnell had written to Strathclyde Police in 2003 on behalf of two people accused of terrorising a nurse. The case was dropped.
The SNP also argued that its own MSP Anne McLaughlin had written to the High Court in London supporting constituents facing deportation to Malawi.
However, when asked if someone convicted of the sort of crime committed by Rauf should go to jail, Mr Salmond sidestepped the issue. He said if he commented on a live court case, it would be "in breach of a whole range of things, including parliamentary procedure, ministerial procedure and every other procedure".
He went on: "Members of parliament have to do their best for their constituents. They should do it without fear or favour, not because they condone their actions, not because they like them or dislike them, not because they vote for them or don't vote for them, but because they have a duty of care.
"And if people in this chamber do not understand that obligation on members of parliament, then they shouldn't be representing constituents on any matter."
But the extract of the MSPs' code of conduct to which the First Minister was referring made it clear that members are entitled to decline a constituent's case in "certain circumstances".
Mr Salmond's use of the code of conduct came back to haunt him at the end of the day, when a point of order was raised by Paul Martin, Labour's business manager.
Mr Martin said: "The First Minister interpreted the rulings as placing an absolute obligation to take on constituents' cases. This statement is grossly inaccurate."
Mr Salmond's assertion that MSPs had a "duty of care" to constituents was also disputed by legal experts. Mike Dailly, principal of the Govan Law Centre, said: "To suggest that it was compulsory and routine for a politician to support someone who had previously served a four-year custodial sentence for serious fraud, and was now convicted of second serious fraud over a five-year period, was a falsehood.
"If there was this duty of care that he talked about – the way he pitched it was very much absolute – you would be able to go to an MSP and insist on support. Then, if you suffered a loss, you would be able to sue him or her for damages. The whole thing is absurd. Alex Salmond has this horrible propensity to invent these concepts on the hoof."
Mr Salmond's argument was also undermined when Mr Gray quoted the separate ministerial code of conduct that states: "It may not be appropriate for a minister to provide a reference, even as an MSP in some cases."
Meanwhile, Labour is demanding to know how many times Ms Sturgeon met Rauf, what was discussed and if he asked her to write to the court urging the sheriff to consider alternatives to jail.
Labour said it must also be made clear whether Ms Sturgeon had written similar letters to the courts on behalf of other offenders or if she had ever turned down such requests.
Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South, described Ms Sturgeon's actions as "outrageous". He said: "This man (Rauf] lives in my constituency, but I would never provide a character reference for a convicted serial fraudster.
"Every politician is duty-bound to consider what their constituents say. But no politician has to take up every case. They have to use their judgment. If Nicola doesn't know that, she's living on another planet.
"This man is a cheat. For a government minister to stand up for someone like that is inept and bizarre. I would not have done so."
A WHIFF OF DOUBLE STANDARDS?
THESE are Nicola Sturgeon's crime and criminal justice pronouncements on …
The announcement that Glasgow City Council workers are to face criminal charges after an investigation alleged that they were fraudulently claiming benefits:
"This is very concerning and a strong line has to be taken by the city council. Obviously if there are allegations of fraud then it is a criminal matter but the council has to take action to convince people it is prepared to set its own house in order."
A zero tolerance approach to NHS fraud:
"We are therefore determined to ensure the problem of fraud is tackled as effectively as possible. Under the campaign, each health board will appoint an anti-fraud champion, while NHS managers and new staff will be given advice to help identify behaviour that indicates fraudulent activity. Expense claims will be scrutinised by investigators, with offenders facing prosecution."
Document trail adds twists to long tale of deceit
Blogosphere divided down party lines on deputy's 'duty'
MSPs' Code Of Conduct