First Minister at FMQs on claims about MP’s property deals. SCOTLAND’S First Minister told MSPs yesterday that allegations against an SNP MP would represent "completely unacceptable" behaviour if they are proven to be correct.
MP Michelle Thomson (SNP,Edinburgh West ) has been linked with property deals involving a solicitor – Christopher Hales - who has since been struck off by the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) in connection with 13 transactions in 2010 and 2011.
Speaking at First Minister's Questions, Ms Sturgeon said: "I said yesterday, I have said again today: the SNP had no prior knowledge of these issues.
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale said the issue was also a "moral matter" which she said had resulted in "vulnerable people being taken advantage of, as their homes are snapped up at knockdown prices".
Ms Sturgeon again insisted that she knew nothing of the allegations until they were reported by the Sunday Times.
She said: "I am in no doubt whatsoever in my mind that if the allegations - and again I stress the word allegations - are proven to be correct, they will represent behaviour that I find completely unacceptable."
The First Minister said it would be "unfair and inappropriate" to judge someone who maintains their innocence while an investigation was still ongoing.
She added: "But when we have all of the facts, when the investigation is concluded, I will take whatever decisions and whatever actions I deem necessary, but those decisions will be driven by facts and not by insinuation and the attempts of opposition parties to stir up political trouble and difficulty."
Ms Sturgeon also said it was "ridiculous" to suggest the SNP would allow a candidate to be put forward for election knowing there were "serious problems" over their integrity.
She added: "Our vetting procedures as a party are robust but we keep them under review, as I would hope every political party does.
"While we make all reasonable checks and ask all reasonable questions, by definition it is not reasonable to expect that matters of which we have no knowledge can be investigated."
But Ms Dugdale accused the SNP leader of "running away" from Ms Thomson, who was the SNP's Westminster spokeswoman for business, innovation and skills and was heavily involved with the pro-independence Business for Scotland group ahead of last year's referendum.
She also said Ms Thomson had for the past two years "been right at the heart of everything the SNP stands for".
Ms Dugdale added: "I am not asking the first minister to comment on the specifics of a live investigation because I accept that criminal matters are for the police.
"But this is also a moral matter, and I would expect her to comment on that. What we have here is vulnerable families losing out for the financial gain of others.
"Vulnerable people being taken advantage of, as their homes are snapped up at knockdown prices. Can I ask the first minister, does she agree with me that profiteering from vulnerable families is just plain wrong?"
Ms Sturgeon responded: "Kezia Dugdale, although she disagrees with me, as she is entitled to do on a whole range of issues, I hope would accept that my commitment to social justice, and helping vulnerable people, like her's, is beyond any question."
Conservative leader Ruth Davidson questioned whether it was "believable" that no one in the SNP knew about the allegations.
She said: "We already know that the Crown Office and Police Scotland were asked whether they would investigate this case in July of last year.
"We know that the Law Society raised with the Crown Office in December.
"We know that journalists have been investigating it all summer and we know that the police were called in nearly three months ago.
"Yet the first minister is asking us to believe that nobody in the SNP, the party of government, from the constituency in Edinburgh West right up to the chief executive to the leader herself, knew anything about this until they read it in the paper almost two weeks ago."
In the decision issued by the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal (SSDT) which struck off Christopher Hales from the solicitors’ roll, the Tribunal came to a view “the solicitor must have been aware there was a possibility he was facilitating mortgage fraud.”
The decision stated: “The Tribunal had no hesitation in making a finding of professional misconduct. There were numerous breaches of the CML Handbook in respect of 13 different transactions involving an ongoing course of conduct which continued for a period of over one year. The Tribunal has made it clear on numerous occasions that institutional lenders are clients of Respondents in the same way as any other clients and are owed the same duties of care. The CML Handbook has been instituted to help prevent mortgage fraud and emphasise the reporting duties on the part of solicitors. In this case the Respondent had a clear duty to report the back to back transactions, cash backs, increases in prices and deposits being provided by a third party to the lender. These matters would have been very likely to have had a material effect on the lender's decision to lend. The Tribunal consider that the features of these transactions were such that the Respondent must have been aware that there was a possibility that he was facilitating mortgage fraud, whether or not this actually occurred. He generated fees on the basis of allowing this to occur. It must have been glaringly obvious to the Respondent that something was amiss when cash backs of £27,000 or £28,000 from the seller to the purchaser were involved.”
“There were so many breaches of the CML Handbook in these cases that the Respondent would have known that he did not have his client's authority to draw down the funds and accordingly the Tribunal also found it a breach of Rule 6 of the Accounts Rules. The Tribunal considered that not only did the Respondent fail to act in the best interests of his lender clients but he failed to act with the utmost propriety towards these lender clients. This is extremely damaging to the reputation of the legal profession.”
“The Tribunal took account of the Respondent's responses contained in the Executive Summary Report but did not consider that these provided any satisfactory explanation for what had happened. The Tribunal note that the Respondent has ceased practice and took account of the fact that the Respondent had cooperated by admitting the averments of fact, duty and misconduct. The Respondent however did not attend at the Tribunal to provide any mitigation in person.”
“In the whole circumstances, given the ongoing course of conduct, the large number of transactions involved, the Respondent's knowledge of the central role of Mrs A and Company 3, which should have set alarm bells ringing and the fact that this type of conduct is likely to bring the profession into disrepute, the Tribunal considered that it had no option other than to strike the Respondent's name from the Roll of Solicitors in Scotland.”
Prosecutors have instructed police to carry out an investigation into "alleged irregularities" relating to property deals in the year 2010/11 after the case was referred to the Crown Office by the Law Society of Scotland.
The society said concerns over potential criminal matters relating to the tribunal's findings were first raised "informally" with the Crown Office in December 2014, and then "formally" in July this year.
Ms Thomson's solicitor, Aamer Anwar, said in a statement released ahead of FMQs: "Michelle Thomson maintains that she has always acted within the law.
"In the interests of her constituents and her party she thought it best if she voluntarily withdrew from the party whip.
"There was no requirement for her to do so, even though she knew it would automatically lead to her suspension from the party. She did so in order to clear her name and return as quickly as possible to frontline politics.
"To that purpose we have contacted Police Scotland at Mrs Thomson's request advising them of her wish to assist with their investigation if, or when, they wish to speak to her."