12/12/2012 11:18 EST | Updated 02/11/2013 05:12 EST

Three senior members of Quebec provincial police under investigation

QUEBEC - The Quebec government has announced that it will investigate three top members of the provincial police for possible criminal activity.

Public Safety Minister Stephane Bergeron said the senior officials being targeted are suspected of improperly using of a special-operations fund, in what would be the latest in a string of ethics controversies to rock the province.

That fund is intended for investigative operations, like paying informants. But Bergeron said people drew from it to pay severance packages and also a consultant who had been barred from receiving government contracts because of his tax troubles.

Bergeron said that fund is also supposed to be rigorously accounted for — and he said that didn't necessarily happen in this case.

Speaking in Quebec City, the minister told a news conference Wednesday that the activities in question could be a criminal offence for fraud and breach of trust.

"The alleged facts are extremely troubling," Bergeron said.

"I'm well aware of the tumult this will cause."

Bergeron said he has created a special task force to investigate, comprising mostly retired police officers. He says he had to take that step because the legislature has yet to adopt a bill that would create a special-investigation unit in the province.

He said those being investigated have been suspended, with pay. While he did not mention their names at Wednesday's news conference, media reports did identify the three high-ranking suspects.

Bergeron said the behaviour was uncovered when the newly elected PQ government replaced the head of the provincial police force.

The new administration was tasked with finding cost savings and uncovered those irregularities during the process, Bergeron said.

He used the case as an example of his new government's commitment to ethics.

"This shows that nobody — regardless of rank or status — is above the law," Bergeron said.

The new director general of the Quebec provincial police, Mario Laprise, was touted for his competence when he was appointed in October.

Even the opposition Liberals' public safety critic, former provincial cop Robert Poeti, touted his competence — although he was quoted at the time describing the new top cop as a well-known Parti Quebecois sympathizer.

Poeti criticized the PQ government for replacing the police boss soon after taking office, and warned that such a move could unduly politicize the force and send it "back 50 years."

On Wednesday, Poeti agreed that the allegations appeared serious.

"When people have an important management role they need to follow the rules," the Liberal critic said.