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Guilty plea in probe into Calif tomato industry

7 May 2009 888 views No Comment

Federal prosecutors announced another guilty plea Tuesday stemming from an ongoing probe into a conspiracy in the California tomato growing industry that authorities say drove up food prices across the nation.

Robert C. Turner Jr., 59, a former corporate purchasing manager at B&G Foods Inc. in Parsipanny, N.J., pleaded guilty to two counts of honest services mail fraud in connection with the investigation.

Turner admitted receiving about $65,000 in bribes from Randall Lee Rahal, a former sales broker at SK Foods, a Lemoore-based company that grows and processes products like tomato paste and diced tomatoes.

Acting U.S. Attorney Lawrence Brown said Rahal bribed Turner from at least 2004 to 2008, hoping to ensure his employer bought only from SK Foods and paid inflated prices for its tomato-based products.

Rahal also is the owner and president of New Jersey-based Intramark USA Inc., a wholesaler of food ingredients, including processed tomatoes grown in California. Prosecutors say Rahal worked with SK Foods to fix prices and rig bids across the country in violation of antitrust laws.

Rahal, the first person charged in the probe, pleaded guilty in December to racketeering, money laundering and antitrust charges. He also agreed to cooperate with investigators and forfeit more than $600,000.

As part of his plea agreement, Turner agreed Tuesday to pay $65,198 in restitution to B&G Foods and Nabisco Inc., where he worked as a purchasing manager in the 1990s and also accepted bribes, authorities said.

His attorney, John Azzarello, did not return an after-hours call for comment.

Turner is scheduled to be sentenced in August. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

In addition to Rahal and Turner, three others have pleaded guilty in connection to the probe:

_ Jennifer Lou Dahlman, SK Foods’ former records and business analyst, pleaded guilty in February to shipping moldy tomato products across state lines.

_ James Richard Wahl Jr., a former Frito-Lay purchaser from Dallas, pleaded guilty in February to accepting $160,000 in bribes in exchange for steering processed tomato products contracts to SK Foods instead of its competitors.

_ Robert Watson, a Kraft senior purchasing manager of White Plains, N.Y. pleaded guilty in January to accepting $158,000 in bribes from Rahal.

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