Safeway buyer charged in price-fixing plot

FRESNO — Federal prosecutors say a former purchasing manager for Safeway Inc. is the latest executive who will plead guilty in a conspiracy to drive up food prices nationwide.

Fifty-two-year-old Michael Chavez of Fremont was charged Wednesday with two counts of wire fraud. U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner said Chavez has agreed to plead guilty.

According to prosecutors, Chavez admitted receiving bribes from an SK Foods sales broker while working for Safeway from 2000 to 2007. In exchange, he steered contracts for processed tomatoes to the Lemoore company rather than its competitors.

Chavez faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Chavez is the eighth person to be implicated in the scheme, which also involved buyers for Kraft Foods Inc. and Frito-Lay Inc.

A Turlock man also has pleaded guilty in Sacramento federal court to kickback and embezzlement charges in connection with the investigation of Lemoore-based SK Foods.

Anthony Ray Manuel, 57, of Turlock admitted embezzling about $975,000 from Morning Star Packing Co., a manufacturer and marketer of bulk tomato products with facilities in Los Banos and Williams.

Prosecutors said their probe is continuing.