Three senior Sûreté du Québec officers are under criminal investigation for fraud and breach of trust over the alleged misuse of a secret internal operations fund.
The probe will focus on money allegedly misused to cover the cost of severance pay, as well as for the questionable hiring of an outside consultant with tax problems.
The law prohibits the SQ from awarding a severance package to its employees. Moreover, the secret police fund was to be used exclusively in criminal investigations to pay off informants or for undercover police operations such as drug deals, said Stéphane Bergeron, the Minister of Public Security.
The investigation couldn't possibly come at a more inopportune time for the police force: Quebec's confidence in public institutions has been severely shaken by repeated allegations of kickbacks and influence peddling revealed at the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in the province.
Mr. Bergeron created a special civilian unit, partly composed of retired police officers, to investigate the allegations, which he described as "extremely troubling" at a news conference on Wednesday. "I am aware of the commotion this current situation is causing. The measures taken are proof that no one, regardless of rank, is above the law. And it confirms our government's firm intention to fight crime."
This unit may well become the foundation for an independent investigation unit the Minister proposes to create next year that will conduct inquiries into questionable conduct and armed interventions by police officers. The proposal is not unlike what other provinces, such as Ontario and British Columbia, have created to investigate police actions.
"This situation shows the urgency of proceeding … with an independent investigation bureau which could have conducted this inquiry," he said.
A government source said the special unit will probe the use of the secret fund to cover severance packages offered to two SQ employees. Several questions were also raised over why the fund was allegedly used to hide fees paid to a private consultant who was under investigation by the province's Ministry of Revenue.
Mr. Bergeron did not reveal the names of those under investigation. However, a government source confirmed that the former director of the SQ, Richard Deschesnes was one of the three officers being investigated. The others are Jean Audette, the assistant director of the force's criminal investigations unit, and Steven Chabot, a senior officer who was the former assistant director of criminal investigations. The first two officers have been suspended with pay, while the other is retired.
Liberal public security critic Robert Poëti, a former 28-year veteran of the SQ, was aware of the secret fund's existence. He explained that strict rules were in place that determined how the money should be used. These included the signed authorization by the SQ's director-general as well his right-hand man, the assistant director of the criminal investigations unit.
"You needed the authorization of both … and you needed strict rules because it was quick easy access to a considerable amount of money," Mr. Poëti said. "It could only be used in cases of emergency involving a criminal investigation, nothing else."
All three senior SQ officers had been closely involved in Opération Diligence into the infiltration by organized crime in the province's construction industry.
Mr. Deschesnes was fired from his job last October, a few weeks after Mr. Bergeron was sworn in as the PQ's new Public Security Minister. It was reported at the time that Mr. Deschesnes, who was only eight months away from completing his mandate, was asked to step aside because of the SQ's refusal to fully co-operate with the Charbonneau Commission.
"The individuals currently under investigation have been suspended with pay until the investigation is completed," Mr. Bergeron said.
The new head of the SQ, Mario Laprise, inadvertently uncovered what appeared to be an "inappropriate" use of the secret operations fund. Because of the potential criminal nature of the investigation, Mr. Laprise was required under the Police Act to immediately inform the Minister.
Mr. Laprise made the discovery after being ordered by the Minister to examine cost-cutting measures as part of the PQ government's efforts to reach a balanced budget by the end of the next fiscal year.
"If these allegations are substantiated, it would constitute a breach of trust and fraud under the criminal code," Mr. Bergeron said.
In his statement to the media, Mr. Bergeron didn't reveal how much money was allocated to the fund and what amounts had been allegedly misappropriated.
"These remain allegations, and we are waiting for the result," said police spokesman Sergeant Bruno Beaulieu.