Maryland Attorney General Stephen H. Sachs has begun a criminal investigation of Friendship Savings and Loan Association of Bethesda that focuses on whether the thrift's two former owners improperly used depositors' funds, according to state government sources.

Gov. Harry Hughes approved the criminal investigation on Oct. 31, the same day Friendship was formally acquired by Chase Manhattan Corp. under an arrangement previously approved by the General Assembly.

Friendship's former owners, E. Mitchell Fry Jr. and Anthony C. Koones, could not be reached for comment today.

The two men were the company's sole stockholders, Fry serving as president and Koones as chairman of the board.

Sachs and Hughes declined to comment on the Friendship investigation.

The criminal investigation of Friendship is at least the third launched by Sachs since May, when depositor runs on the Old Court Savings & Loan Association of Baltimore triggered a broad thrift industry crisis in Maryland.

Sachs and the Hughes administration had previously confirmed that criminal investigations were being conducted into Old Court and another Baltimore thrift, Merritt Commercial Savings & Loan.

Some indictments stemming from the investigation of Old Court being carried out jointly by Sachs' office and the U.S. attorney's office are expected within a matter of weeks.

Information relevant to the investigation was recently referred to Hughes by Wilbur D. Preston Jr., the special state counsel who is wrapping up his own probe of the origins of Maryland's thrift crisis, according to sources. Hughes passed on that information to Sachs in a second letter of authorization this week.

Under legislation creating the special counsel post enacted by the legislature last May, Preston is authorized to refer to the governor any suggestion of criminal wrongdoing uncovered by his team of lawyers and investigators.

The governor's office, through a spokesman, would neither confirm nor deny the Friendship investigation.

"Whenever allegations of wrongdoing have been brought to the governor's attention, he has authorized the attorney general to conduct an investigation," said assistant press secretary Norm Silverstein. "But it has been his policy not to comment on the specifics to avoid any potential harm to any investigation."

Before its purchase by Chase Manhattan as part of a deal that included the acquisition of Merritt and Chesapeake savings and loan firms, Friendship was Maryland's ninth-largest savings and loan association with $340 million in assets.

Chase has converted Friendship's four branches in Montgomery County, as well as the branches of the other two thrifts it acquired, into a Maryland commercial banking operation.

In exchange for selling their interests in Friendship to Chase, Fry and Koones received about $20 million in long-term, low-interest mortgages on several apartment projects.

Preston's mandate from the legislature is to probe the origins of the thrift crisis and recommend ways to prevent its recurrence.

He is to present his findings to the General Assembly during a joint session of the House and Senate on Jan. 9, the day after the assembly convenes its regular 90-day session.