A state grand jury accused Nikola founder Trevor Milton of triple criminal fraud for lying about “almost all aspects of the business” in support of the electric vehicle startup’s stock sales, an indictment unsealed Thursday.
The US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan charged the 39-year-old billionaire, who resigned as chairman in September, of two types of securities fraud, including misstatements about the company, and wire transfer fraud.
The US Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday also brought charges of securities fraud against Milton. The SEC asked the US District Court for the Southern District of New York City to permanently ban him from serving as an officer at a company that issues securities, siphon off any ill-gotten gains, and pay a fine.
“This is a very simple case, Milton was telling lies to drive demand for Nikola stock. As of at least March 2020, when Nikola announced that his stock was going public, Milton was increasingly busy trying to track Nikolas stock price US Attorney Audrey Strauss told reporters at a press conference on Thursday.
Milton claims to be innocent. His legal team, led by Brad Bondi, said Milton was “wrongly charged following a flawed and incompetent investigation,” and that justice will not be served until after his discharge, a statement emailed Thursday said.
Read the full statement from Milton’s Legal Department:
Trevor Milton is innocent; This marks a new low in the government’s efforts to criminalize lawful business conduct. Every executive in America should be appalled.
Trevor Milton is an entrepreneur with a long-term vision to help the environment by reducing carbon emissions in the trucking industry.
Mr Milton was wrongly indicted following a flawed and incomplete investigation in which the government ignored critical evidence and failed to interview key witnesses.
From the start, this was an investigation in search of a crime. Justice has not been served by government action today, but it will be when Mr. Milton is exonerated.
Milton pleaded not guilty on Thursday afternoon in a Manhattan courtroom. He was released with a $ 100 million bond secured against two of his properties in Utah. He is prohibited from contacting investors.
Prosecutors said Milton had come up with an intricate plan to increase the company’s stock for its own benefit by lying about the company’s products, technology, and future sales prospects. They accuse him of using Nikola’s deal to go public through a special acquisition company to target amateur private investors, some of whom have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“Milton’s scheme aimed at individual, non-professional investors – so-called small investors – by making false and misleading statements directly to the investing public via social media, television, print and podcast interviews,” says the 49-page publication Indictment.
Nikola shares were down as much as 11% during Thursday’s early trading session. The stock traded at $ 12.85 per share, down 7.4% this morning.
Milton, the company’s largest shareholder, held approximately $ 8.5 billion in Nikola stock at its peak. At one point last summer, Nikola’s valuation surpassed Ford Motor and exceeded $ 31 billion.
The grand jury said Milton should forfeit all property “traceable to the commission of these crimes,” which would likely include the more than $ 1 billion it made when Nikola went public in June 2020.
Prosecutors said Milton was “motivated to join the fraudulent system in order to enrich himself and improve his position as an entrepreneur”.
Nikola said in a statement emailed that she “worked with the government throughout her investigation”. The company stressed that the allegations are against Milton, not Nikola.
“We are sticking to our previously announced milestones and schedules and are focused on getting Nikola Tre’s battery-electric trucks out of the company’s manufacturing facilities later this year,” the company said.
Many of the allegations of false and misleading information were exposed by the short seller Hindenburg Research.
In a September report, Hindenburg accused Milton of making false statements about Nikola’s technology to grow the company and partner with auto companies. The report, titled “Nikola: How to Partner an Ocean of Lies with America’s Largest Auto OEM,” was released two days after the announcement of a deal with General Motors that boosted both companies’ stocks. The short seller characterized Nikola as an “intricate scam built on dozens of lies” by Milton.
According to an internal investigation, Nikola said in February that when the company went public, Milton made several inaccurate statements from 2016 that misled investors.
CEO and founder of US Nikola, Trevor Milton, speaks during the presentation of his new all-electric and hydrogen fuel cell truck in partnership with CNH Industrial at an event in Turin, Italy, on December 2, 2019.
Massimo Pinca | Reuters