A Stormont probe into allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct by NI21 leader Basil McCrea is on the brink of collapse because the key witness is too "traumatised" to continue.
The woman who lodged a complaint against the Lagan Valley MLA is understood to have walked out of an interview with the Assembly's Commissioner for Standards Douglas Bain, who is investigating the allegations.
She claimed to have been "stressed and traumatised" by the commissioner's treatment of her allegations, and that she no longer wanted to participate in the probe.
Without her evidence Mr Bain will unlikely be able to complete his investigations into the scandal that shocked local politics last year.
NI21, which was founded in 2013 by ex-Ulster Unionist Party MLAs Mr McCrea and John McCallister, went into meltdown last year after claims of misconduct surfaced against the former. Mr McCrea strongly denies the allegations.
In light of the serious allegations the Commissioner for Standards launched an investigation into Mr McCrea.
The woman at the heart of the allegations, Ashleigh Murray, claimed at the time that the alleged activity took place while she was working as Mr McCrea's assistant in 2013.
She agreed to participate in Mr Bain's inquiry, which was launched in September.
However, the Belfast Telegraph has learned that Ms Murray decided to walk away from the investigation because the process left her stressed and traumatised.
During a debate in the Assembly last week, Jimmy Spratt MLA raised the case of a "young, vulnerable" civilian who "comes along and makes serious allegations against a Member of the House, allegations that are then investigated by the commissioner".
Mr Spratt, who is chairman of Stormont's standards and privileges committee, then said that the woman "is so traumatised by the commissioner that she has to walk out and cannot give evidence again to him because of the way in which she was stressed and traumatised".
Although Mr Spratt did not name Ms Murray or Mr McCrea, the Belfast Telegraph understands this is the case he was referring to.
He then described Mr Bain as a "pompous, arrogant, self-serving and patronising individual" who was "not someone with whom it is pleasurable to do business".
Mr Spratt said he was concerned that there was no avenue - particularly for "a young, vulnerable" civilian "traumatised" by the commissioner - to make a complaint.
"I think that is something that is sadly lacking in the House... there is no mechanism in the House to have the commissioner investigated," he added.
Mr Bain could not be reached for comment yesterday.
On its formation, NI21 promised non-sectarian, pro-Union politics, but it descended into chaos on the eve of last year's council elections after its executive proposed dropping its unionist designation at Stormont.
It then emerged Mr McCallister had initiated an inquiry into claims of inappropriate sexual activity by Mr McCrea involving female party workers.
At the time Ms Murray said she had kept silent about Mr McCrea's alleged behaviour because "he is a respected politician with a lot of power". She added: "Who was going to believe me?"
Mr McCrea remains the leader of NI21 and denies all allegations against him.
Mr McCallister has since left NI21 and now sits in the Assembly as an independent unionist. Last month the Belfast Telegraph revealed that he was the subject of a police investigation into misuse of public funds.
Police said Mr McCallister and another man had been reported to the Public Prosecution Service. He insisted that he had done nothing wrong.
Story so far
NI21 went into meltdown on the eve of the local council elections following allegations against party leader Basil McCrea of inappropriate sexual conduct.
The woman at the centre of the allegations, former party worker Ashleigh Murray, said she had not gone to the police as she thought she would not be believed. Ms Murray, who started working for NI21 in the spring of 2013, said at the time: "Who's going to believe me, someone from my background?"
Following the allegations the Assembly's Standards Commissioner launched an investigation in September into Mr McCrea's treatment of staff.