Scotland's top civil servant has insisted a crucial text message in which she mentioned a "war" after losing a legal case to Alex Salmond should not be seen as a "grandiose statement" or evidence of a conspiracy.
Giving evidence to MSPs on Tuesday, Leslie Evans said she was "discouraged and disappointed" at repeated references to the message, which she sent to a colleague hours after the Scottish Government conceded a judicial review.
The text, sent to communications director Barbara Allison, read "battle maybe lost but not the war" the day Mr Salmond won his legal challenge to an investigation into sexual harassment complaints made against him.
The message has been cited by allies of Mr Salmond as evidence of a high-level plot against him, with both the Scottish Government and senior SNP politicians accused of using public money to pursue a politically-motivated vendetta aimed at preventing him from making a political comeback.
Asked about the message yesterday, Ms Evans said: "This wasn't some grandiose statement... I'm discouraged and disappointed that this text is trying to be brought back regularly as some point of conspiracy on my behalf."
Ms Evans has said she was referring to changing the culture within the Scottish Government, rather than being at "war" with Mr Salmond.
A judge ruled in January 2019 that the probe against Mr Salmond had been "procedurally unfair" and "tainted by apparent bias". He was later cleared of all 13 sexual assault charges at a trail following a separate criminal investigation.
Some MSPs suspect that the Scottish Government pursued the civil case for longer than necessary, increasing cost to the taxpayer, despite receiving legal advice stating that prospects of success in court were low.
So far, ministers have resisted intense pressure to publish the advice, despite Holyrood voting for it to be disclosed.
Ms Evans told the committee investigating the affair that the Scottish Government believed it had a "strong case to defend" in the summer of 2018, after Mr Salmond brought his judicial review. However, she said the situation changed the following December when new documents were discovered.
The Scottish Government conceded the case on January 8, 2019, just days before the case was due to be heard. Legal costs of £512,250 were awarded to Mr Salmond.
Ms Evans told MSPs the documents were identified on December 19 - with two of these describing the "contact between the investigating officer and those who had raised concerns". The communication between the parties was the issue that ultimately decided the case.
The Permanent Secretary said the documents had "contradicted earlier assurances".
'Has anybody offered their resignation? Have you offered your resignation over this failure?' @murdo_fraser asks
'I can't answer a question like that about HR and people issues in the organisation' Perm Sec Leslie Evans responds
- Gregory Hoare (@GregoryHoare) November 17, 2020
Ms Evans made her third appearance in front of the committee after James Wolffe, the Lord Advocate, "stonewalled" MSPs by repeatedly refusing to answer their questions on Tuesday, including over whether he personally gave legal advice about the case to ministers or attended key meetings.
The government's chief legal representative repeatedly cited "law officer convention" in refusing to disclose information. He also declined to say whether he had been consulted on the potential release of the legal advice.
He admitted that a late disclosure of the documents that led to the Scottish Government conceding defeat at the Court of Session, having previously offered reassurances that all relevant information had been released, had been "embarrassing". However, he denied that there was ever an "intention or desire" to conceal documents.
Following the hearing, Murdo Fraser, a Tory MSP on the committee, said: "The Lord Advocate should have come to Parliament and given clear answers to straight questions. Instead, he decided to stonewall.
"Following the SNP's refusal to respect the will of Parliament, today's lack of good faith reconfirms the contempt they have for this committee and by extension the public. The Permanent Secretary was not much better and frequently sought to find ways to avoid giving straight answers."