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Lib Dem MSP cleared by watchdog over campaign spending

But a wider investigation into the party's 2016 Holyrood election finances is ongoing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton: Lib Dem MSP defeated SNP in Edinburgh West in 2016.
Alex Cole-Hamilton: Lib Dem MSP defeated SNP in Edinburgh West in 2016. SWNS

A Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP has been cleared by the Electoral Commission over his campaign spending in the 2016 Holyrood election.

However, a wider probe into the Scottish Lib Dems' finances during the Scottish Parliament two years ago remains ongoing.

Alex Cole-Hamilton won the Edinburgh Western seat by 2960 votes ahead of SNP rival Toni Giugliano in the Scottish Parliament elections of May 5 that year.

He faced two different investigations into issues around spending - one from the UK's electoral watchdog and another from Police Scotland.

The allegations revolved around undelivered election leaflets, which the Lib Dems insisted should not count towards campaign spending limits.

There was also a dispute over costs that were attributed to the party Scotland-wide and to Mr Cole-Hamilton's constituency campaign.

Following the police probe, prosecutors at the Crown Office determined last October they would be taking no legal action against Mr Cole-Hamilton after a "full and careful" look at the case.

https://stv.tv/news/politics/1400320-no-action-against-lib-dem-msp-over-campaign-spending/ | default

But the Electoral Commission stressed that its own inquiry into Mr Cole-Hamilton's spending was only one part of a wider probe into the Scottish Lib Dems' 2016 election finances.

The watchdog said this investigation remains ongoing, and described the MSP's decision to publish details of a letter it sent to the party this week as an "unusual step".

A source from the Electoral Commission acknowledged Mr Cole-Hamilton broke no rules in releasing the information.

In its letter to the Lib Dems, the Electoral Commission said: "In our investigation we questioned whether the values of some payments included in the party's campaign expenditure return, which had been apportioned between it and the candidate return for Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western), were justifiable and if the campaign expenditure return accurately reflected the true expenditure by the party.

"In particular, we queried the apportionments in respect of a number of leaflets that had been distributed in the Edinburgh Western constituency.

"In view of the responses to this aspect of the investigation, we are satisfied that there were no breaches in respect of the apportionments."

Parties could spend a maximum of £12,000 in trying to win each constituency election and a further £80,000 across the regional list vote.

The Lib Dems spent a total £186,477 during the election, with more than three-quarters of the funds going to unsolicited materials to prospective voters.

https://stv.tv/news/politics/1408605-watchdog-probes-lib-dems-holyrood-election-spending/ | default

Mr Cole-Hamilton said: "I learned this morning that the Electoral Commission have concluded an investigation into my 2016 election spending and found no irregularities with my return.

"Members of West Edinburgh SNP had made an allegation to them immediately after a 15-month police investigation (which the SNP also initiated) determined I had no case to answer.

"All told the SNP have seen me subjected to two taxpayer-funded investigations spanning a total of 27 months.

"While the cost to the public purse of these is hard to quantify, the waste of police time in particular is inexcusable."

He added: "To suffer an unexpected and heavy defeat is hard, but that's politics.

"To then meet that defeat with a complaint to overstretched police officers, is a wilful disregard of both the democratic process and the public good.

"I hope the SNP reflect on that as defeat becomes more commonplace to them."

An Electoral Commission spokesperson said: "We are aware of the comments by Mr Cole-Hamilton.

"However, in line with our regulatory responsibilities the investigation we opened was into the Liberal Democrat party's spending return from the 2016 Scottish Parliament election and this investigation has yet to conclude.

"Mr Cole-Hamilton appears to have taken the unusual step of sharing extracts from a letter which the commission sent to the Liberal Democrats.

"Our investigation is ongoing. We will publish the outcome when it is concluded but until then we have no further comment to make on what is a live matter."

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