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WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal grand jury on Thursday indicted the Arthur Andersen accounting firm in the Enron Corp. scandal, the first criminal charges in the nation's biggest bankruptcy.

The one-count indictment alleging obstruction of justice came after Andersen spurned a 9 a.m. Thursday deadline to plead guilty to charges stemming from its admitted destruction of Enron-related documents. Andersen said criminal proceedings were tantamount to a ``death penalty'' against the firm, and it accused the Justice Department of ``a gross abuse of governmental power.''

For a one-month span in October and early November, ``Andersen ... did knowingly, intentionally and corruptly persuade'' employees to ``alter, destroy, mutilate and conceal'' documents, the indictment said.

Andersen employees ``were instructed by Andersen partners and others to destroy immediately documentation relating to Enron and told to work overtime if necessary to accomplish the destruction,'' said the indictment.

Andersen employees engaged in ``the wholesale destruction'' of Enron-related materials, Deputy Attorney General Larry Thompson said.

The Justice Department brought Andersen under close scrutiny following the accounting firm's admission that it had engaged in massive shredding of Enron-related documents as the energy trading company careened toward bankruptcy last fall. Just before the shredding began, the Securities and Exchange Commission had announced it was conducting an inquiry of Enron.