A jury has convicted Trevor Milton of defrauding investors by misleading them about the technology at his electric truck start-up Nikola to drive up the company’s stock price.
Milton, 40, whose company briefly boasted a higher valuation than Ford before plummeting after a 2020 report by short seller Hindenburg Research called the company “an intricate fraud”, was charged with two counts of securities fraud and two counts of wire fraud. Each count carries a maximum sentence of between 20 and 25 years.
The jury in Manhattan federal court deliberated for less than a day before convicting him on three of the four charges. Milton shook his head repeatedly as the verdict was read out.
The judge denied prosecutors’ request to tighten Milton’s bail conditions and set sentencing for January 27. “We’re going to keep fighting,” Milton’s lawyer Marc Mukasey said as he left court.
“Let this case serve as a warning to anyone who plays fast and loose with the truth to get investors to part with their money,” Damian Williams, the US attorney for Manhattan, said in a statement. “It won’t end well.”
Federal prosecutors and defence attorneys delivered diverging portraits of Nikola’s former executive chair during the trial. While prosecutors described Milton was “a conman” who purposefully misled investors to boost the company’s share price, Milton’s defence team described him as a gifted entrepreneur who “built Nikola from out of his basement”.
Prosecutors told the jury that Milton aspired to make the top 100 on Forbes’ billionaires list, and had used his gains from Nikola to purchase property in Turks and Caicos and a private jet. They alleged that he made false claims about the company in interviews, and the truck he presented at a corporate event “was a giant paperweight” that lacked a propulsion system.
“This was an old fashioned fraud,” prosecutors said. “He lied to investors to get their money.”
Milton’s lawyers said that while “there were times when Trevor fell into the wrong grammatical tense” when describing the readiness of Nikola’s products, it was a “distortion” to claim he “intended to commit fraud”, adding that “the statements he made were cheered on by the Nikola leadership team”.
They argued that unlike some of Milton’s social media posts, Nikola’s filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission were accurate, and therefore “all the material facts and risks about Nikola were fully disclosed”, and available to investors.
Nikola shares ended Friday at $3.06, down from $74.19 shortly after it debuted in June 2020. A Nikola spokeswoman said that the “trial was related to statements that Mr Milton made, several years ago” and that “neither the prosecutors nor Mr Milton questioned the company’s promising future”.
More than a dozen witnesses in the nearly five-week trial have testified for the prosecution, with the defence calling just one before resting, a Harvard law professor who told the jury traders were not influenced by the statements from Nikola’s founder. Milton declined to take the stand.
Nikola’s chief executive Mark Russell and chief financial officer Kim Brady testified against Milton. They portrayed him as eager to reach retail investors, reluctant to temper his public remarks and focused on Nikola’s stock price. When its stock price dropped $5 the first day it publicly traded, Milton thought the Nasdaq had malfunctioned, Brady testified.
Russell testified that he, Brady and Nikola’s top lawyer, Britton Worthen, all threatened to resign in 2020 if Nikola’s board allowed him to continue with the company. Milton stepped down 10 days after Hindenburg published its report.
In closing arguments, prosecutors referred to a 2018 email from Brady citing Theranos — the blood-testing start-up led by Elizabeth Holmes, who was convicted of fraud earlier this year — as a warning of what could happen if an executive misrepresented a product.
But Mukasey told jurors during the trial that Nikola’s executives “turned on Trevor” and, under pressure from prosecutors, sought to blame him for all the company’s problems.
In an internal investigation the company concluded that Milton had made a number of misleading or false statements. Nikola agreed in December to pay a $125mn penalty to settle a civil fraud case brought by the SEC. The company neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.