A Pennsylvania supermarket vendor pleaded guilty in federal court in Manhattan on Monday to a conspiracy charge in connection with an alleged multimillion-dollar accounting fraud at a unit of Dutch retailer Royal Ahold, the Dow Jones news agency has reported.

At a hearing before US District Jed S Rakoff, Robert Henuset, a sales manager at Crowley Foods LLC in Yardley, Pennsylvania., pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy.

Henuset, who was a supplier to US Foodservice a unit of Royal Ahold (AHO), admitted to signing an audit confirmation letter in January 2003 that overstated the amount of money owed to US Foodservice by Crowley.

At the hearing, Henuset said US Foodservice was a "major client" of Crowley Foods and he agreed to sign the letter under "the belief that business relationship would continue uninterrupted if that audit confirmation letter was signed."

Henuset, 55 years old, faces up to five years in prison in connection with the conspiracy charge. Sentencing is set for March 20.

As part of a plea agreement with the government, prosecutors said the appropriate sentencing guidelines range for Henuset is six months to a year in prison. However, those guidelines are nonbinding and it is ultimately up to the judge decide the appropriate sentence.

Federal prosecutors have charged 16 US Foodservice vendors with aiding former executives at the wholesale food distributor in an alleged scheme to artificially inflate income from its promotional allowances, or supplier rebates, by hundreds of millions of dollars in order to manipulate its earnings. The vendors have been accused of filing false audit confirmation letters on the company's behalf.

So far, 15 of those suppliers or brokers, including Henuset, have pleaded guilty to criminal charges in the matter.

The government claims the scheme resulted in US Foodservice and Ahold overstating their earnings by about $800 million between 2000 and 2003. As a result of their manipulation, the executives obtained substantial monetary bonuses, according to court documents.

In July 2004, prosecutors charged Michael Resnick, US Foodservice's former chief financial officer, and Mark Kaiser, its ex-marketing chief, with securities fraud, conspiracy and making a false filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the matter. They have denied wrongdoing.

Previously, Timothy Lee, a former executive vice president of purchasing, and William F. Carter, another former purchasing vice president, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and securities-fraud charges. Lee also has entered a guilty plea to separate charges of insider trading and making false statements to a government official.

On Monday, Ahold said it had agreed to pay EUR945m (US$1.118bn) to shareholders to settle a separate civil lawsuit in the US related to its previously overstated profits.