The founder and former CEO of electric truck startup Nikola was indicted Thursday and charged with fraud regarding information he shared about the company in media appearances and on social media.
Trevor Milton pled not guilty in a Manhattan courtroom to two counts of securities fraud and one count of wire fraud. He was released on $100 million bail. The charges he faces carry the threat of more than 20 years in prison.
In addition to the Southern District of New York (SDNY), the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged Milton with fraud, alleging he used his public platform to boast about Nikola’s technological advances and achievements in a manner not reflective of where the company actually stood. The SEC is seeking civil penalties, disgorgement of ill-gotten gains, injunctions, and an officer and director bar in its complaint.
Nikola has faced enhanced scrutiny since going public last year following a merger with a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). The startup was the subject of a short-seller report in early September that alleged it was “an intricate fraud built on dozens of lies over the course of its Founder and Executive Chairman Trevor Milton’s career.” Shortly after the report was published, Milton resigned his post as executive chairman in addition to his board seat.
“Nikola is truly in my blood and always will be, and the focus should be on the Company and its world-changing mission, not me,” he said in a statement at the time.
The SEC and Department of Justice quickly subpoenaed the company and Milton regarding the fraud allegations. Nikola’s stock price plummeted, and the company was the subject of multiple class-action lawsuits.
According to SDNY, Milton exploited the SPAC process to take advantage of less-experienced retail investors. He promoted his direct social media accounts as a way to get “accurate information” about the company “faster than anywhere else,” the SEC noted.
Instead, Milton allegedly used his platform to push false claims regarding the capabilities of the company’s electric trucks in production and how much the vehicles were in demand. In July 2020, Milton claimed Nikola had “billions and billions and billions and billions of dollars in orders” that were binding, which was significantly untrue, according to SDNY.
“Much of what Milton represented as accomplishments were, at best, internal targets years away from completion and subject to significant execution risks or, worse, ideas conceived only on paper,” the SEC stated.
Fueled by these statements, Nikola raised more than $1 billion dollars, most of it from institutional investors, the SEC stated. Upon the fraud allegations becoming public, some investors lost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to SDNY, which noted amateur traders getting their start during the COVID-19 pandemic were among the victims.
The SEC further alleged Milton “reaped tens of millions of dollars in personal benefits” through his fraudulent statements.
“Having chosen to promote Nikola through social media, Milton was obligated under the securities laws to communicate completely, accurately and truthfully,” said Gurbir Grewal, director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in a press release. “That obligation exists for all public company officials, even those whose companies have only recently entered the public markets through SPAC transactions.”
Milton’s legal team, in a statement, said the executive “has been wrongfully accused following a faulty and incomplete investigation in which the government ignored critical evidence and failed to interview important witnesses. From the beginning, this has been an investigation in search of a crime. Justice was not served by the government’s action today, but it will be when Mr. Milton is exonerated.”
The SEC’s lawsuit somewhat mirrors the regulator’s much-publicized feud with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, who was fined $20 million in 2018 over a single misleading tweet. Tesla separately paid $20 million in that case.