December 19, 2003 01:25 PM

Michael Jackson was formally charged Thursday with seven felony counts of child molestation — and another two felony counts of giving his alleged victim an “intoxicating agent,” Santa Barbara County prosecutors announced.

But soon after the charges were announced, both Jackson’s attorney and his mother denounced the charges as nothing more than an attempt to shakedown the entertainer for money by the mother of the accuser.

Jackson, 45, is accused of committing “lewd and lascivious acts” upon a child under 14. The accuser has been identified as a cancer patient, now 14, who visited the pop star’s Neverland Ranch and appeared in the controversial Jackson TV documentary, “Living with Michael Jackson,” which aired on ABC last February.

The documentary showed the child holding hands with Jackson and speaking about sleeping in the same bedroom with the singer. But the charges allege that the molestation occurred after the documentary aired — between Feb. 7 and March 10, according to the Smoking Gun Web site, which has published copies of the felony counts.

Each molestation count carries possible prison sentences of three, six or eight years, the Associated Press reports. Jackson, who is free on $3 million bail, denies the allegations, calling them a “big lie.”

In announcing the charges Thursday, Santa Barbara District Attorney Tom Sneddon rebuffed recent speculation that prosecutors have a weak case. “I want to categorically say that is false,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Smoking Gun published a memo from authorities in Los Angeles who looked into abuse allegations against Jackson by the same accuser and called the claims “unfounded.” Sneddon dismissed that report, adding, “To call that an investigation is a misnomer. It was an interview.”

The accuser’s family history also has raised some questions. In 1998, the family filed a lawsuit claiming that the boy, his brother and mother were beaten by mall security guards while leaving a Southern California J.C. Penney store carrying clothes that weren’t paid for, AP notes. The mother also claimed to have been sexually assaulted, and the family received a $137,500 settlement.

“What we have here is an intersection between a shakedown — someone who is looking for money — with somebody doing an investigation who has an ax to grind,” Jackson’s attorney, Mark Geragos, said at a press conference Thursday. “Because otherwise there would be no way that any self-respecting prosecutor would be going forward on the basis of this patent … shakedown.”

Jackson’s mother, Katherine, released a statement saying, “We know these vicious lies are totally untrue, malicious and motivated by pure greed and revenge. Our family totally supports Michael.”

If there was any good news for Jackson on Thursday, it’s that he will be allowed to leave the country. Sneddon said prosecutors and the court have agreed to allow Jackson to travel to Britain to fulfill contractual obligations to promote his new greatest-hits collection, “Number Ones.”

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