Seven former suppliers of Columbia's U.S. Foodservice Inc. agreed to plead guilty yesterday to conspiracy charges for helping executives at the company meet earnings targets by inflating promotional allowances by $800 million from 2000 to 2003.

The men, who were mostly mid-level sales executives or food brokers at small firms in the Midwest and Northeast, surrendered to federal authorities yesterday morning. They face a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when they are sentenced.

At the same time, the suppliers settled related civil charges filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission by agreeing to pay $25,000 each.

Each of the men allegedly submitted false letters to U.S. Foodservice's independent auditors, either misstating how much in rebate payments the food distribution company earned or how much it was owed by the suppliers. U.S. Foodservice and its Dutch parent company, Royal Ahold NV, have faced regulatory scrutiny since February 2003, when word of the scheme came to light. Ahold, which also owns Giant Food LLC, cooperated with investigators and has not been charged with wrongdoing.

Yesterday's guilty pleas mark the first public action in the case since January, when federal prosecutors in New York charged nine other suppliers with wrongdoing.

"The desire to maintain a lucrative business relationship is no excuse for providing false information to corporate auditors," Michael J. Garcia, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a prepared statement.

"These actions demonstrate the commission's continued scrutiny of third parties who help companies commit and hide financial fraud," said Scott W. Friestad, an associate director of enforcement at the SEC.

Investigators said they continue to probe accounting misdeeds at U.S. Foodservice, including what former chief executive James L. Miller may have known about financial troubles there. In the past, Miller has disavowed knowledge of the rebate scheme.

Former U.S. Foodservice marketing executive Mark P. Kaiser and onetime top lawyer Michael J. Resnick are set to face trial in February on conspiracy, securities fraud, and false filings charges stemming from the rebate inflation. They have pleaded not guilty.