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The National (Scotland)
The National (Scotland)
Abbi Garton-Crosbie

Lawyers urge Crown Office to explain why SNP finance probe is taking so long

LAWYERS have urged the Crown Office to explain why the probe into the SNP’s finances is taking so long to conclude.

Two former sheriffs have suggested that the lengthy investigation could “stimulate perceptions of a cover up” and called for clarity on its progress.

Operation Branchform was sparked by a formal complaint to police in March 2021 but was not officially launched until July 2021.

The probe into how donations made to the SNP for a second independence referendum campaign were spent is now entering its 30th month.

Police Scotland are in charge of the probe, and have not yet submitted a report to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS).

It comes as the campaigner who sparked the initial complaint told the Daily Record that he believed officers were “dragging their heels”.

Speaking to The Times, former sheriffs Kevin Drummond KC and Douglas Cusine said they believe the public are entitled to know why the investigation is taking so long.

Drummond and Cusine jointly formed Quis, a group that examines issues of legal concern.

“The investigation in this case appears to be taking such a protracted period of time, that some explanation should be offered by the Crown,” they told the newspaper. .

“The Crown is likely to have been kept up to date with the nature of the inquiry. If that is correct it can only be conjectured that either the Crown has instructed further investigation of elements of that report, or the delay is not on the part of the police but on the part of the Crown.

“Either way, the public has a right to be informed about a matter which is of such national significance.”

We previously told how police arrested, and later released without charge, then-SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, as well as searching the home he shares with Nicola Sturgeon.

Sturgeon and former treasurer Colin Beattie were also arrested, questioned, and released without charge.

The former first minister has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Drummond and Cusine argued that the lengthy investigation is not reflecting well on the force and that those former SNP officials have had no opportunity to clear their name and will not be able to do so until either the matter is dropped or charges are brought.

“In our opinion the continuing delay in apparent progress casts an unfavourable light on the investigative process,” they said.

“In the absence of any explanation by Police Scotland or the Crown Office, the delay in such a high profile case is capable of stimulating perceptions of cover-up.

“For that reason alone, it can be said that the Crown Office should offer a public explanation for the lack of progress.”

A spokesperson for COPFS confirmed they had not yet received a report from the force, and that Operation Branchform “remains a police investigation”.

“Senior professional prosecutors from COPFS and an advocate depute are working with police on this ongoing investigation,” they added.

“It is standard practice that any case regarding politicians is dealt with by prosecutors without the involvement of the law officers. All [of] Scotland’s prosecutors act independently of political interference.

“The duration of any investigation will vary depending on its individual circumstances. As is routine, to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations, we do not comment in detail on their conduct.”

Last July, outgoing Police Scotland chief constable Iain Livingstone (below) suggested that the investigation had “moved beyond” the initial complaint and officers were probing potential embezzlement or misuse of funds.

He defended the use of a blue forensics tent outside of Murrell and Sturgeon’s home, after suggestions it was “over the top”.

And, Sean Clerkin, who made the initial complaint to police regarding the funding, told the Record he had asked officers for an update and was told the investigation was ongoing but would not give him a timescale.

Clerkin said officers are “dragging their heels” and “not telling anyone anything”.

A spokesperson for Police Scotland said: "The investigation remains ongoing".

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