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AMSTERDAM/NEW YORK - A probe into a damaging accounting scandal at Dutch retail giant Ahold will lay the blame on just a few middle managers at its U.S. Foodservice unit, a source told Reuters on Wednesday. The report is due later this week or early next, and very likely before an annual shareholders meeting on May 13, the source said.
A spokeswoman for Ahold said the group would make the results of the probe available as soon as they were ready.
Ahold stunned markets on Feb. 24 when it revealed that profits had been inflated by more than $500 million at its U.S. Foodservice unit.
The report concludes that a handful of Foodservice executives -- now suspended -- made misleading bookings of sales target bonuses by suppliers such as Sara Lee.
The report will make it more likely Ahold's auditors can finish work on Ahold 2002 accounts on time for the lending banks to allow it to draw on a second loan tranche, worth $915 million, of a 3.1 billion euro facility.
Ahold has been working with New York law firm White & Case and a team of forensic accountants to determine the extent of the accounting problems. The results are eagerly awaited by investors, customers and suppliers.
"The first thing they need to do is say there was no issue in any other business outside of the very limited scope and the very few people who were involved ... at U.S. Foodservice," said Mia Kirchgaessner, a retail analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein.
"If they come out with an external auditor and say that, then it gives investors and also suppliers a lot more confidence in the company," she added.
In other related news, Chilean retailer Distribution y Servicio, or D& S, Wednesday said it has taken its first legal steps against Royal Ahold NV, claiming that Ahold's Argentine unit Disco S.A. owes it $45 million.
D&S said Ahold missed Wednesday morning's deadline to repay the full $90 million Disco owed it for the acquisition of 10 Argentine supermarkets in 2000.
D&S said it has started a court case in the Dutch Antilles. It also said it has filed a request at a court in the city of Haarlem, the Netherlands, to hear witnesses in an attempt to collect evidence to start a legal procedure against Ahold.
Ahold is currently actively seeking buyers for its Latin American operations.
In Chile, retail holding Censosud SA and Ahold are still in talks about the $150 million takeover of Ahold's Santa Isabel SA's local supermarket operations by the end of the month.
Cencosud is waiting for an additional audit of Santa Isabel to be completed that will ensure its earnings have been properly presented to Chilean securities regulators.
D&S has already said that it will try to block the sale of Ahold assets -- potentially including Santa Isabel -- in the region if it isn't repaid the full $ 90 million Disco owed.